March 1, 2013 - In a Saturday Night Live skit from several years ago, a TV pitchman played by Chris Parnell claims to have the solution for a couple (played by Steve Martin and Amy Poehler) stressed out by credit card debt. "I developed this unique new program for managing your debt," he says, handing Poehler a booklet. "It's called: "Don't Buy Stuff You CANNOT Afford."
"Sounds confusing!" Martin responds, but Poehler says: "I don't know, honey. This makes a lot of sense. There's a whole section here on how to buy expensive things using money you … saved."
This is America Saves Week, championed by the Consumer Federation of America and more than 1,300 other organizations as a time to "promote good savings behavior." It comes amid evidence that Americans are being more frugal. Wal-Mart executives have fretted over lower spending, while Coupons.com reports a surge in coupon use, up 22 percent from November to January.
Organizers of America Saves Week offer up a range of savings goals: Make a budget. Take advantage of your company's 401(k) match. Automatically transfer part of your paycheck into a savings account. Build up a fund of at least $500 to handle those emergencies that inevitably blow holes in budgets from time to time. There is more savings guidance here.
It's all great advice -- as long as there is extra money to be found. Many Americans are unemployed, under-employed or have gone without raises for years. If you make less than $25,000 per year, as one-in-four households do, how many extras are available to be cut? Some experts encourage buying in bulk, while others say the temptations of Costco and Sam's Club encourage overspending. Many take aim at routine, thoughtless expenses, particularly daily coffee purchases. Yet that's the very same advice Helaine Olen mocks as a gimmick in her book "Pound Foolish."
Still, there are ways that nearly everyone could save money -- by avoiding credit cards, for example. People paying with cash buy less junk food, a 2011 study showed. Too many poor people do without necessities because they're bled dry by payday loans, finance charges and late fees. Finally, there is something to heeding SNL's advice before every purchase. As Parnell puts it, "Seriously, if you don't have the money, don't buy it."
This essay originally appeared in Bloomberg.com's weekly personal finance newsletter, Wealth Watch. Sign up here.