There's nothing more satisfying than watching your cash reproduce. We found six easy ways to grow your savings, starting with as little as $70. By Sandy M. Fernández, REDBOOK.
Where to start
It doesn't happen often, but every once in a while life drops a little windfall on my family. In the last few months, for example, my husband stumbled into an unexpected work gig and I signed up for AirBnB and snared a rental. (Enjoy our home, Inga!) Back when our finances were shakier, what to do with any newfound wealth was obvious: We needed an emergency fund, plus there was credit card debt to slay. But these days we're pretty much on track-even with our retirement and college savings funds-so we allow ourselves the luxury of asking: How do we get the most out of this moola? You could always put money in your IRA or a CD, but are there ways to get creative and reap an even bigger benefit? Indeed, there are, and along the way you'll actually have some fun.
Related: 25 Lazy Ways to Save Money
Investment: Make a networking budget
Cost: $1,000 yearly
Possible payback: 20% of your lifetime salary
If you consider LinkedIn just another inbox to check, think again. A recent study found that about 80 percent of jobs are landed through personal connections. The key? Networking-but not the kind you do with a stick-on name tag and a frozen smile. "If it feels like work, you're not doing it right," says former Virgin America marketing vice president Porter Gale, author of Your Network Is Your Net Worth. "Authentic connections are based on mutual values, interests, and sharing ideas, not job titles. When you genuinely want to support each other, that's when the magic happens." Of course, you don't get those kinds of relationships from trading business cards. So invest in building them, says career coach Nicole Williams. "Focus on meeting up with one contact a month. Do coffee with those you're just meeting or don't know very well, and offer to take your mentors or close peers out to lunch or dinner." Being able to stay steadily employed keeps your earnings growing-up to 20 percent over the course of 15 to 20 years, a recent study found-and jobs are easier to find when you have contacts to turn to. Spend a bit on networking and the next time you come calling for a reference, you'll be "that gal I had lunch with," not, "Who?"
Investment: Give your body a raise
Cost: A minimum of $150
Possible payback: $500 a year-for life
Experts say the first step to a healthier lifestyle is simple: Make time to work out, even if you're not that jazzed about it in the beginning. And the number-one way to make fitness a habit is to have a standing appointment. "Buy a personal training session," says health and fitness expert Bob Harper of The Biggest Loser. "You'll get a great workout, and the tools you need to start a fitness regimen." You can also try signing up for gym classes or that new Pilates studio with a friend so you'll be more likely to stick to it. Either way, if you have a little cash left over, Harper says, "invest in a couple key pieces of equipment for your home, like a heavy kettle bell, a jump rope, and a set of challenging weights." By staying active, you'll dramatically lower your risk for chronic diseases and the financial hardships that come along with them. One analysis has priced the benefit of staying active at several hundred dollars a year, and a recent study found that people who work out at least three times a week make as much as 10 percent more than their peers who never get off the couch.
Related: How to Pay Less for Everything
Investment: Grow a vegetable garden
Cost: About $70
Possible payback: Upwards of $500 a year
Some of the healthiest foods in the grocery store are also the most expensive offerings: fresh fruits and vegetables (and if you want organics, fuggeddaboudit). One answer is to grow your own. According to the National Gardening Association, the average family vegetable garden costs $70 a year and grows about $600 worth of crispy, crunchy edibles. And the bounty can be considerably more. When gardener Ron Doiron, who lobbied for the start of the White House's kitchen garden, tallied every veggie his family grew for a year, he calculated that his haul would've cost $2,197 at a grocery store. "Herbs are the best place to start," says Willi Galloway, author of Grow Cook Eat: A Food Lover's Guide to Vegetable Gardening. "For the cost of a $3.50 clamshell of fresh herbs, you can buy a plant that, in many cases, will live for several years." Basil, oregano, sage, and chives will thrive in containers all year long. From there, you can branch out. "Look for crops that you like to eat but that are expensive to buy," Galloway suggests. "My family eats a lot of salads, so I grow greens. If I were buying them at the store, it would be $8 or $9 a week. Instead, I buy a $1.50 seed pack in the spring." Other cost-effective crops: summer squash, bell peppers, asparagus, and tomatoes.
Investment: Buy stocks
Cost: $1,000 to get started
Possible payback: Approximately $2,000, 10 years from now
Eyes glazing over at the thought of taking your cash and actually, you know, investing it? You're not alone. A recent Gallup poll found that 48 percent of American households don't own any stock investments at all-even though this has traditionally been a solid way to make money over time. "For a starter investor, I recommend a low-cost, do-it-yourself index fund," says Eileen Freiburger, founder of ESF Financial Planning Group in Manhattan Beach, CA. Most will accept a minimum investment of $1,000. "Basically, this is a type of mutual fund [which means it's a bundle of stocks] that doesn't have many fees and spreads out your risk; they certainly run less chance of crashing and burning than a single hot stock. Buy from a brokerage like Vanguard, Fidelity, or T. Rowe Price-not a broker or a bank-to keep your costs down, and then, aside from adding to it, you can pretty much just let it be." Keep in mind that one thing you don't want to do is yank your money in and out of the market. You're playing the long game here. One of Freiburger's favorite's is Vanguard's Star Fund. Over the last 10 years-and that's right through the recession-it's averaged more than 7 percent in returns. Try getting your savings account to grow that much.
Related: The Money Habit That Saves You $1,378 Every Year
Investment: Bike more
Cost: $500 to $1,000
Possible payback: About 50 cents for every mile you bike, which adds up to hundreds a year if you take short rides daily. According to government figures, 28 percent of all the trips we take outside the home are less than a mile, and we're taking 65 percent of them in a car. Replace those jaunts with your own pedal power and you'll take a big bite out of the yearly $2,000 the average person spends on gas. You'll also drop a few pounds along the way: Bicycling burns about 500 calories an hour.
Investment: Take a vacation
Cost: Up to you
Possible payback: $1,500 on average
In an internal study, a large accounting firm found that for each additional 10 hours of vacation employees took, their end-of-year performance rating improved by 8 percent. So if you book that $700 cruise, guess who'll be first in line when raises come around? As if that's not incentive enough, consider this: A study done last year found that Americans weren't using over nine days of vacation in 2012. That's like giving your employer back a paycheck. You work too hard to do that, right?
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