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Money Minute: How much should I really be saving?

We all know we should be saving. The tricky part is figuring how much! I’ll tell you how in this week’s Money Minute.

Pick a goal, any goal: It's impossible to figure how much you should save if you don't know what you're saving for. Retirement? A new laptop? Your dream vacation? The more concrete your goal is, the easier it will be to come up with a savings strategy. For example, for an emergency fund, most experts recommend saving 3 to 6 months of living expenses (that includes rent, utilities, transportation, food -- whatever you can't live without).

But let''s say you're looking at a long-term savings goal, like retirement. This all about continuity -- coming up with a fixed amount you need to save in order to hit your goal later. The general rule is to save 10% to 15% of each paycheck to have enough for retirement. The age at which you're aiming to retire, risk tolerance, and income can all influence your ideal savings rate. We love this chart from Boston College's Center for Retirement Research, which shows just how different savings goals can be depending on age and desired retirement year:

Source: Boston College's Center for Retirement Research
Source: Boston College's Center for Retirement Research

If we're talking about a short-term goal, like a new car or vacation, things get a bit more straightforward. Research the cost of your desired goal, figure out how much time you have to save and come up with a monthly (or weekly or daily — whatever works!) allocation you can afford to keep up with.

Think of paying off debt as a way to save, too. Most people stress themselves out trying to balance debt payments with savings goals. But you actually are saving if you're paying off debt. The faster you pay off your debts, the less money you’re blowing on interest, especially given the fact that most credit cards charge double-digit rates today.  

When you have a goal, come up with a plan: "Hope is not an investment strategy." I love this quote from financial expert Jean Chatzky. However you're saving, your savings goal is just a goal — an intangible, invisible, pie in the sky dream — unless you come up with a plan to achieve it. Take a good look at your monthly income and your expenses and figure out if you've even got wiggle room to set cash aside for a future savings goal. If the answer is no, then you've got two options: cutting back on day-to-day expenses, or looking for ways to get extra income.

Some people swear by the envelope system or good old-fashioned spreadsheets. Don't expect your best friend's budget to work for your needs. Because I tend to overspend, I use Learnvest’s 50/30/20 method to keep myself in line. I figure out how much I bring home after taxes. Then I set aside half of that amount for costs I can't really control like rent and utilities. Thirty percent goes toward the fun stuff I can control like groceries and entertainment, and the remaining 20% goes to my retirement fund and short-term goals like vacations and buying a new car.

Check out more money tips from Mandi:

Money Minute: 3 ways to stop feeling broke all the time 

5 benefits you can ask for if you don't get a raise

What do you do when your coworker earns more than you?