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46 million Americans wiped out their emergency savings during the pandemic — How to turn it all around in 2021

New York Times bestselling author and CEO Jean Chatzky shares five strategies to help recover or increase your savings throughout 2021.
Jean Chatzky, CEO of
Jean Chatzky, CEO of Miller Hawkins

As Americans struggle to make ends meet during the coronavirus pandemic, many are dipping into their savings and in some cases, even depleting their retirement accounts. According to a CNBC + Acorns Invest In You savings survey, conducted by SurveyMonkey, some 14 percent of Americans—or 46 million people—say they’ve wiped out their emergency savings since the start of the pandemic.

Furthermore, one in three Americans have decreased or stopped their retirement savings altogether, according to a separate survey conducted by FinanceBuzz. This is due, in part, because the CARES Act eased restrictions on borrowing from a workplace 401K and making a withdrawal before the traditionally required age of 59-and-a-half.

If you’ve taken money from your emergency fund or retirement savings in 2020, don’t fret. Instead, consider these tips to help recover or increase your savings throughout 2021. Even if you’ve been fortunate enough to keep your savings, these best practices can also help increase your bottom line over the long term. Know Your Value recently chatted with Jean Chatzky, a New York Times bestselling author and CEO of to get her best tips. Here are five strategies to consider:

1. Track your spending

“If you’re going to make changes that are going to stick, you have to know where your money is going,” said Chatzky. “Until you can see the flow of your money, then you have no information to make changes.”

This involves more than simply looking at your online banking account on a weekly basis. It requires close monitoring on at least a daily basis over the course of a month or longer, Chatzky said. You can do this the old school way with pencil and paper, by logging onto your online banking account or by enlisting the help of a personal finance app like Mint or YNAB. Look closely and identify opportunities to trim your daily, weekly or monthly expenses.

2. Set goals

It's one thing to simply make it your goal to save money, and it’s another to set a specific goal that you’re saving towards. “We are more successful when it comes to saving when we are saving for a reason,” Chatzky said. “Figure out what you’re trying to do—replenish your emergency cushion, boost your retirement savings, put together a down payment to buy a place to live.” Then, keep in mind that you’re more likely to reach your goal if it is measurable and if there’s a timeframe.

So set benchmarks and give yourself deadlines. Hint: short deadlines are easier. So rather than saying you will save $500 in two months, set a goal to save $50 per week. “Break it down into bite size pieces that you know that you can hit,” Chatzky suggested.

3. Apply behavioral finance principles

Let’s face it, if you have money in your checking account, that translates to money that’s available to spend. “Move that money into savings,” Chatzky said. “You can transfer money daily, as often as you want.” You may also want to put that savings account somewhere a little further away, such as in a 401K. “This is the most successful savings vehicle, and the reason that they work is because you don’t see the money,” Chatzky said.

4. Pay back any retirement savings

If you took advantage of the CARES Act provision that allows you to withdraw money from your 401K plan penalty-free, keep in mind that you should pay it back within three years. “This can basically be treated like an interest-free loan, but be sure to stick to your plan and make sure that you hit your goals,” Chatzky said.

5. Hold on to the savings habits that you learned during the pandemic

During the pandemic, we learned many ways to tighten our spending. We learned that rather than going to the grocery store every day, we can go once a week or every two weeks. We can meal plan, make a list and buy only the food items we need. We learned that we can cook, make coffee at home and that walking and running outside is just as effective as spending $35 on a fitness class. We also learned that we can color our hair, paint our own nails and more.

“There was a time when self-care was a treat, and then it became a routine. Well, maybe we’re back to it being a treat again,” Chatzky said. When the coronavirus pandemic is behind us, look at where you saved money and identify which budget boosters you’re willing to keep.