7 Ways to Increase Your Savings Rate

As investors looking for financial success and even financial independence, there are really only two levers we can control.

One is fees, and much has been made about the low-cost index fund approach to investing.

The other is your savings rate. The more you put away, the less you depend on the market return (over which you have zero control) to do the heavy lifting for you.

And the more you put away over time, the larger effect the overall market return has on your total balances, and with I think the vast majority of us assuming that, over time, the market will go up and to the right on a chart, we hope that return is eventually positive and meaningful.

However, saving a lot can be a challenge even for high-income professionals. Even if you’re naturally a frugal person, making a home in some areas with a high cost of living can mean you feel the pinch every now and then.

In this post, originally published on White Coat Investor, we look at savings rates and how to maintain them at a high level.

 

 

Here’s an email question I received that asked about increasing your savings rate.

Q. I’m leaving the military for a hospital-employed urology practice (all W-2 income). I haven’t been a great saver the last few years but would like to do better. I know I can max out my available 403(b) and HSA, but I’m trying to decide whether to use the 457(b) or Backdoor Roth IRAs. I’m not sure I can do both. I know you say you need a 15% savings rate per year for retirement, but that seems like a huge number for now. Any advice on how to increase my savings?

First, let’s be really clear about what I recommend for your retirement savings rate. Although Dave Ramsey recommends 15% for retirement, I think most doctors should be putting away 20% of their gross income toward retirement each year.

The reasons doctors need to save more is that Social Security will make up a smaller percentage of their retirement income than that of a typical worker and that they generally get a pretty late start, essentially losing an entire decade of compounding returns.

And, if you’re a doc like this one that has saved very little so far into your career, that makes for getting an even later start.

 

15%, 20%, or 25% Savings Rate?

 

Saving in and of itself isn’t the goal since you can’t take it with you when you go. Investing for retirement is all about deferring spending now in order to spend (or give) more later. It always helps to run the numbers when deciding how much to save.

I’ve shown elsewhere that a typical doctor will want their portfolio to replace something like 30%-60% of pre-retirement gross income. Let’s assume 50%. If you start saving at age 35 and want to retire at age 60, that leaves just 25 years to reach your “number.”

If your income is $300,000 per year, you would want your portfolio to produce an income of $150,000 per year, and your “number” is $150,000*25=$3.75 million (using the 4% rule).

 

If you use an aggressive portfolio and minimize taxes and investment expenses, you can probably get a long-term return of 5% per year after inflation (but if you don’t like that number, pick your own).

What percentage of your $300,000 income do you need to invest each year for 25 years to finish with $3.75 million in today’s dollars? About 25% per year.

Saving 15% per year would lead to an income of $90,000 per year (30% of pre-retirement gross income), and 20% would give you $120,000 from that portfolio (40% of your pre-retirement gross income).

Now, you can adjust any of these variables. You can start saving earlier, you can work longer, you can save more, and you can decide to get by on less in retirement.

But the hardest variable to adjust may very well be that rate of return on your investments—so I suggest you be as reasonable as you can be in choosing that number, and track your return to ensure you are on track.

Assuming your portfolio will compound at 7%-10% after inflation, taxes, and investment expenses is probably folly. If you are counting on those sorts of returns, you will likely undersave.

 

Max Out All Tax-Advantaged Accounts

 

Now, seeing that saving less than 20% per year probably isn’t a great idea, let’s see how much that might be for you. According to the 2020 Medscape Physician Compensation Report, the average urologist makes $417,000. Twenty percent of that is $83,400 per year. So, the real issue here isn’t whether you should use the 457(b) or the Backdoor Roth IRAs.

The real issue is where to put additional savings in 2022 after you’ve maxed out the 403(b) ($20,500), 457(b) ($20,500), Stealth IRA ($7,300), and Backdoor Roth IRAs for you and your spouse ($12,000), totaling up to only $60,300 per year. Depressing? Yes. But better to find out now than when you’re 60 years old.

 

How to Increase Your Savings Rate

 

#1 Don’t Ever Grow into Your Income

The easiest way to boost that savings rate is to not have to increase it at all. Upon residency graduation, most doctors are quite used to living on $50,000 per year.

When their income jumps to $200,000, $300,000, or more, there is plenty of room to increase their lifestyle significantly while still carving out 20% of that new higher income for retirement savings.

Think of it as something that has to be paid right off the top, just like your taxes. Even with the much higher tax bill associated with the higher income, a typical doctor can still “double or triple their lifestyle” and still meet their savings goals.

This doc is in a similar situation since his income is likely to double upon leaving the military. You can have it all—a nicer lifestyle and an adequate savings rate. But you need to be deliberate about how much you are going to save and how much you are going to spend.

More information here:

Make It Automatic
Moving the Goal Posts: Attack of Lifestyle Creep

 

#2 Minimize Taxes by Maximizing Tax-Deferred Retirement Accounts

One of the best ways to increase that savings rate is to use tax-deferred retirement accounts like 401(k)s, profit-sharing plans, and defined-benefit plans. Not only does every dollar put into the account go toward your savings rate, but the government will help subsidize your efforts.

If you have a 33% federal marginal tax rate and a 9% state marginal tax rate and you put $50,000 into a tax-deferred retirement account, only $29,000 comes out of your lifestyle.

The other $21,000 comes out of what you would have otherwise paid in taxes. Roth retirement accounts work in a similar way, although most of the tax breaks won’t be realized for many years.

More information here:

Tax-Deferred Retirement Accounts: A Gift from the Government

 

#3 Watch the Big Items

 

how to increase savings

Many investing authors like to talk about “the latte factor“—which basically says if you’d just skip your $5 latte every day, you’d be rich. While every little bit helps, you’re likely to get a lot bigger bang for your buck by watching the big things, like the size of the house you live in, the expense of the car you drive, and the state in which you choose to practice.

The difference between living in a $300,000 house in Tennessee, driving an old F-150, and not paying state taxes vs. living in a $2 million house in California, driving a brand-new tricked-out Lexus SUV, and paying 9% in state taxes is immense.

More information here:

Geographic Arbitrage
Why Tesla Owning Doctors Hate Me
Should Your Kids Go to Private School
10 Lessons Learned Buying a Wake Boat

 

#4 Make More Money

For many physicians, one of the easiest ways to save more money is to simply work harder and make more money. You can keep the same spending habits and save more if you just make more.

This might mean taking a better-paying job, improving the efficiency of your practice, taking more call, or picking up more shifts. There is obviously a limit to this strategy (and burnout is a very real issue), but there’s no doubt it does work, especially in the short term.

More information here:

How to Double Your Income as a Primary Care Physician

 

#5 Minimize Fixed Expenses

Many people get locked into their lifestyle due to long-term contracts and debt. The more of this you can avoid and eliminate, the easier it is to change your budget each month in response to changes in income.

Avoid consumer debt like the plague. Minimize student loans, and prioritize paying them off (especially the ones with higher interest rates). StudentLoanAdvice.com can help you with that. Buy a less expensive house, refinance to a lower rate as able, and pay it off early.

Try to minimize contracts that lock you in when choosing cell phone, data, internet, and cable providers, as well as daycare, lawn care, and housekeeping services. Being able to cut back if income drops provides a great deal of financial flexibility.

More information here:

How Fast Can You Get Out of Debt
A Budget Without Payments

 

 

#6 Watch the Credit Cards

Although most of us aren’t dumb enough to actually carry a balance on a credit card (if you are, quit it), studies are quite clear that we spend more (and thus save less) when using credit cards.

If you’re having trouble putting 20% of your income toward retirement, go to a cash-only budget. You may be amazed at how much less you spend when you have to hand over cold, hard cash—not to mention take the time to go get it from an ATM or bank. This effect is likely higher than any 1%-5% rewards you may be getting back for using the card.

More information here:

Doctors Need to Budget Too
Why I Don’t Go for 0% Financing Deals (Anymore)
Savings Rate Too Low? Get Rid of Your Credit Cards

 

#7 Track Your Savings Rate

Your employer likely cares a great deal about your “metrics” at work. At our shop, our door-to-doctor time, door-to-discharge time, patients per hour, and RVUs generated are all carefully tracked and reported each month.

As a result, people think about these things and they gradually improve. Your savings rate is also a metric that can be tracked. I suggest you calculate it at least once a year. The mere act of doing so will subconsciously cause you to increase it.

You can calculate both your net and gross savings rate with our Savings Rate Calculator.

 

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What do you think? Are you saving 20% or more each year? What are you doing to increase your savings rate? Comment below!

 

2 thoughts on “7 Ways to Increase Your Savings Rate”

  1. High savings rate and avoiding lifestyle creep. That’s what worked for us. We started off saving 30% of gross income and eventually got to 50%. Meanwhile, as our income increased, our budget stayed roughly the same. As our friends and colleagues upgraded to much nicer homes and fancy cars, we stayed in our starter home and drove used average cars. 20 years later, we’re work optional. It’s not for everyone, but this is the path we chose.

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  3. I have found that for me personally the easiest way to save more as a practicing anesthesiologist is picking up shifts/picking up more call. It has given me the ability to inflate my lifestyle a bit while still saving for retirement and continuing to pay off my student loans.

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