Successful saving has really only one rule: Make a plan and stick to it. The trouble with that is how easy it can be to let yourself get away with small infractions against the plan -- $5 here, $10 there -- so your mighty ambition to save perishes from attrition, suffering the death of a thousand cuts.
Fortunately, you can strengthen your saving skills with the right training program, building discipline like monks on their way to Shaolin mastery. Discipline with money is a lot like martial arts, actually. It's hard at first, but the benefits can last.
How to train your savings discipline
Rule No. 1: Establish a portfolio of savings goals
Ask yourself: Why do you want to save? Maybe there's a big-ticket purchase you're looking forward to, you've got kids to put through college, or you're taking matters into your own hands with your retirement savings. Maybe you just want to have a chunk of money at the ready, in case of emergency.
Whatever end you have in mind for your savings, it helps to know precisely what you're socking away for. In fact, if you want rule No. 2 to succeed, it's practically mandatory. Remember to set at least one short-term goal, too -- we'll get into that later.
Rule No. 2: Set up one saving account for each goal
A main vulnerability of the typical savings plan is the "big bucket" problem. That is, you take the money you want to save and you put it all in one savings account, or under a single heading in your mental budget. It can be easy to sabotage yourself when you're confronted with a large and looming sum of undifferentiated cash.
Establishing accounts with specific goals in mind helps because you know exactly which part of your future you're stealing from when you go to make a savings withdrawal. You might be more inclined to keep your hands off your savings if your pending balance transfer for that Amazon impulse buy is coming straight out of your new camera fund.
If your bank charges extra fees for multiple accounts, see what online savings accounts have to offer. You may find a more attractive option.
Rule No. 3: Keep a running tally of your accounts
If you're old-fashioned, writing your monthly account totals in a ledger book can help you visualize the progress you're making toward your goals. If you're more comfortable with modern, digital conveniences, services like Mint.com can help you keep an eye on your savings growth.
As you get used to watching your savings accounts grow, you may find it harder and harder to decrease the balances prematurely. On top of that, once you reach that short-term savings goal discussed earlier, you can discover what it feels like when the plan succeeds and strengthen your resolve to avoid small withdrawals.
A final word on disciplined saving
This plan isn't foolproof. Temptation to withdraw from savings can still lurk.
Just remember that if you follow these three rules as closely as possible, you can strengthen your financial discipline and learn how to control your money -- rather than the other way around.