As far as savings strategies go, "divide and conquer" has its merits.
Consumers repeatedly hear that we're not saving enough: Not for retirement, for a rainy day, or for discretionary purchases. And the numbers bear that out.
By the Bureau of Economic Analysis' latest data, Americans are setting aside 4.4 percent of disposable personal income, or about 4 cents on every dollar. Only 38 percent have enough money in a savings account to pay for an unexpected expense of $500 or more, according to Bankrate.com. And CardHub.com puts the average household's credit card debt at a little more than $6,800.
Dividing your savings into different buckets or accounts, one for each goal, is one solution that can help jump-start savings.
"What people really need to stick to savings goals is a sense of control, and the feeling that they're making progress," said Kit Yarrow, a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University.
Separating out funds for different goals helps you more easily track progress and prioritize. It can also keep you motivated, she said—you'll be less apt to raid the "Trip to Paris" or "Replace the on-its-last-legs fridge" funds for an impulse buy than you might be with a generic savings account covering half a dozen different goals.
Ideally, pick a bank that offers a decent interest rate on a free savings account. Some of the most generous online-only accounts, including GE Capital Bank, Barclays and Ally, are currently offering a yield of about 1 percent, said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com. (It's not much, sure, but that rate is still more than 10 times what big-name banks offer savers with small account balances.)
In lieu of opening separate accounts, there's SmartyPig.com, which deposits fund with BBVA Compass and allows users to open multiple goal funds under one account.
Opening an account at SmartyPig.com took about 4 minutes and 15 seconds of active time. Expect similar timelines at other banks, provided you've already gathered necessary documents like a driver's license and account and routing numbers for the account you'll be transferring money from. (For most new accounts, there's some wait time to buffer in, as banks verify your information before accepting that initial deposit.)
The bucket strategy isn't a fit at all banks. "Be mindful of minimum balance requirements or any fees associated with small-balance accounts," said McBride. "A $5 fee erases all the interest you're going to earn for several months." That can also make it difficult to have multiple accounts.
Nor are buckets a fit for all savers. Federal law limits the number of withdrawals you can make from a savings account to six per month, so buckets won't be as helpful if you're doing a lot of juggling of funds from goal to goal.
If you have a few extra minutes, set up automatic contributions, said McBride. Employers allow you to split direct deposit among several accounts; having some sent to your emergency fund bucket helps prioritize that saving, he said. Then set up automatic transfers from a checking account for more discretionary goals, like vacations or purchases. Those are easier to cancel or change if money is unexpectedly tight in a particular month.