Listen to this article

On the financial to-do list, saving for retirement is one of easiest to say, “I’ll do that another day!”

The good news is that two-thirds of Americans are saving for retirement, according to the 2019 EBRI/Greenwald Retirement Confidence Survey. If you are one of these people, congratulations.

Researchers and policy makers are interested in encouraging people to save money for long-term goals such as retirement, as well as for emergency savings. Not only do savings make people’s financial lives better, more savings overall in the nation can reduce people’s reliance on government programs.

One research article, "Should Governments Invest More in Nudging" (Benartzi et al, 2017), explored “nudge” interventions that governments could use to change people’s behaviors with low government costs. For example, an employer policy that requires new employees to choose how much to contribute regularly to retirement savings plans saw a $100 increase in contributions for each $1 spent; in comparison, U.S. tax incentives to save for retirement saw a $1.24 increase for each $1 spent for the government.

What retirement savings strategies can we use that are supported by research?

Visualize where you want to be. We need to be future-oriented — be able to imagine the future — in order for saving for the future to be important to us. What do you want your future financial well-being to look like? Where do you want to be located? What do you want to be doing?

Sign up for a retirement savings plan at your workplace. The data is clear that people who save regularly and automatically are the people who build wealth. If you don’t have a retirement plan at work, put a plan in place so that money from your paychecks automatically goes into savings. It’s better to save a small amount automatically than wait until you have more money to save.

Save money in easy ways. Don’t wait for money to be in your hands before you decide to set it aside for future use. For example, divide your tax return dollars and deposit some into your checking account and some to savings.

Look for ways to add nudges into your life that encourage you to save. For instance, a picture that reminds you of your retirement plans posted where you will see it regularly can be this nudge.

Or enroll in America Saves, a nonprofit dedicated to encouraging people to save money, which will send you text message nudges to help you stay focused on your saving goals. You can sign up for these nudges at Champaign County Saves (our local America Saves campaign) at champaigncountysaves.org. I receive these text messages and think they’re quite creative.

Another nudge that was discussed in Benartzi’s paper I recognize from Ameren’s recent bills. Researchers found that adding comparisons to neighbors’ electricity usage and providing tips for energy conservation led to 27.3 kWh saved per $1 spent. Much more effective than when people received discounts on their bills when they decreased their electricity use (3.41 kWh saved per $1 spent). Nudges are especially effective when they engage our emotional brain rather than depending on rational thought. We don’t like the idea that we might not do as well as our neighbors.

Commit to your retirement saving goals out loud or in writing. Being clear about your goal and committing to it can strengthen your determination to do it. Accountability to someone else can add to your determination.

Meeting regularly with a Money Mentor is one way to achieve this accountability. Money Mentors volunteers, through University of Illinois Extension, help people reach their financial goals. If you’d like to become a Money Mentor volunteer, our next training begins Oct. 1. Visit our website, go.illinois.edu/MoneyMentors, to register and learn more about our program.

Kathy Sweedler is a consumer economics educator at the University of Illinois Extension. Contact her at 217-333-7672 or sweedler@illinois.edu.