Learn the secrets to saving for retirement from people who are saving the most.

By Lauren Phillips
August 04, 2020

Some people manage to tuck away a little money every month or year for various financial goals, including establishing an emergency fund, collecting money for a down payment on a house, and saving for retirement. Even a little is better than nothing, but between paying rent or a mortgage, reducing student loan or other debt, paying bills, and sometimes splurging a little—and now, with the COVID-19 crisis and corresponding financial downturn—even saving a little can feel like an uphill battle.

Still, for a variety of reasons, some people manage to save a lot of money—and it’s usually not by cutting out every splurge or non-essential expense. Principal, a retirement program provider, releases an annual survey of clients who save the most amount of money for retirement, offering a peek into the lives of Super Savers.

Here, a Super Saver is someone who either contributes $17,100 (90 percent of the max contribution) or more to their employer-sponsored retirement plan in a year or puts 15 percent or more of their income into retirement savings. (Anyone struggling to commit to even a 5 percent contribution knows what a feat that is.) The ages of the Super Savers in the 2020 Super Savers Survey vary, and they’re not even all high-earners—a good portion have an annual salary of less than $100,000. While everyone’s situation is different, the sacrifices these Super Savers do (and don’t) make to save money and the strategies they use can help anyone save a little more money, whether for retirement or another goal.

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1 They follow a budget

Out of all survey respondents, 54 percent say they have and follow a budget. (Here’s how to budget if you want to be like them.)

2 They have an emergency fund

According to the survey, 97 percent of Super Savers have an emergency fund of some size. Of those respondents, 34 percent have three to six months of expenses stashed away, 22 percent have seven to 12 months of expenses saved, and 30 percent have more than 12 months’ worth. In this case, too, something is better than nothing: 2 percent have less than one month of expenses in savings to help cover an unexpected cost.

3 They make some sacrifices...

In order to save for retirement, Super Savers drive older vehicles (48 percent); own modest homes (42 percent); don’t travel as much as they’d prefer (39 percent); go without a housecleaner (39 percent); do DIY improvement projects instead of hiring outside help (38 percent); and carry high levels of work-related stress (31 percent). Other, less popular sacrifices include living with parents longer than hoped (5 percent), delaying having a family (13 percent), and opting for secondhand goods instead of purchasing new (27 percent).

4 …but they don’t avoid splurges completely

Only 5 percent of Super Savers say they don’t splurge on anything, while 53 percent pay for subscription entertainment services (think streaming services), and 46 percent splurge on travel. Others dine out more than once or twice a week, get coffee on the go, buy new or luxury cars, and pay for other non-essentials.

5 They’re average investors

Saving successfully for retirement doesn’t require Wall Street–level financial know-how: 64 percent of Super Savers say they feel like an average investor, with an understanding of general investment concepts, while 18 percent admit to being beginner investors, with little understanding of investment principles. Only 19 percent call themselves savvy investors.

RELATED: How to Build Retirement Savings at Every Age

6 They’re motivated to save by the thought of financial security and comfort

Seventy percent say their desire to feel financially secure motivates them to save, 61 percent are motivated by wanting to have a good lifestyle during retirement, 51 percent want to be prepared for the unexpected, and 73 percent say having the income to save motivates them to do so.

7 They’re financially independent (mostly)

Financial independence is having the monetary foundation to pay bills and expenses and maintain a comfortable lifestyle without relying on support from parents or other family members—or even having to work for money, in some cases. The top definitions of financial independence from survey respondents are: not having to worry about bills; being able to pay bills if laid off; not carrying credit card debt; and being able to splurge on purchases. The survey says 54 percent of Super Savers are financially independent, and 41 percent aren’t financially independent yet, but are on the path to getting there. Only 6 percent say they are not financially independent.

8 They check their accounts often

When asked if checking their accounts often helped them visualize where their money goes, 86 percent said they somewhat or strongly agreed.

9 They aren’t letting COVID-19 derail their plans

More than half (57 percent) of survey respondents are planning to save the same amount of money as last year, despite financial impacts of the coronavirus crisis and recession, and 31 percent have not made any financial decisions or changes because of COVID-19.