We're saving less than 4% of our income

The personal saving rate dropped to 3.9% in December 2013, the first time it dipped that low in nearly a year, according to the Department of Commerce.

The rate crossed below the 4% threshold for just the second time since 1998. It touched 3.6% in January 2013.

December's rate also is well below the 4.48% average for 2013.

Of course, even the annual average is nowhere near the 10% to 15% most financial experts say we need to be investing in our futures — and a savings rate Americans routinely achieved in the 1960s and '70s.

The closest we've seen recently to the percentage of our incomes we should be saving was a December 2012 spike to 8.7%, the highest savings rate since 1992.

So what made that particular month special?

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Anecdotal evidence suggests Americans became anxious and socked extra money away as the so-called fiscal cliff loomed in December 2012.

The cliff, if you'll recall, was a catchall phrase relating to the $500 billion in tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2013. Lots of folks predicted the fiscal cliff would be bad for the economy, perhaps even tipping the U.S. into another recession.

Congress reached a last-minute compromise that averted some of the tax increases and spending cuts, but not before lots of us fretted for a month about our future finances.

Mary Gresham, an Atlanta-based financial psychologist, says research has shown people save more when they fear tough economic times around the corner.

"Fear of loss is a great motivator. If you have a short-term event that incites anxiety and fear, you'll find a way to save a lot more," Gresham says.

The downside: Once people see they're in the clear, they're likely to go back to their normal behaviors, Gresham says.

That's exactly what we did. When the fear of the fiscal cliff subsided in January 2013, our savings rate plummeted to 3.6%.

The mere fact that we saved that much in December 2012 tells us we're at least capable of saving a little more than we do now.

Many of us may have the ability to save; what we lack is the desire, motivation and commitment.

We have to ask ourselves what we can do to replicate that savings rate and sustain it indefinitely.

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Cost-of-living demands and stagnant wages have certainly made saving more difficult.

But we've faced tough times before and still managed to save. Consider that in 1982, when the unemployment rate was more than 9%, we still managed to save 11.4% of our income.

It was the mid-1990s when our savings rates first hit the 5% range and really started to stay low.

Not surprisingly, this was around the time American consumer credit card debt started to explode.

According to the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances, average credit card debt increased by 53% for American families between 1989 and 2001.

As we all know, it's hard to find money to save without spending less.

Sonya Britt, a certified financial planner and former president of the Manhattan, Kan.-based Financial Therapy Association, says the desire to spend and buy is too tempting for some people.

Like dieting or any other kind of change, Britt says the act of saving is largely psychological.

Many people have the ability to make some cuts in their budget and save more, but they face mental challenges in actually doing it.

One common psychological barrier is that people have a hard time distinguishing between wants and needs.

That makes it difficult to cut things from their budget to free up more money to save, Britt says.

Britt says we're constantly bombarded by ads telling us what we need to have to be happy. Unless we're conscious and aware, it will impact our spending and saving habits.

This is why many people feel they're giving up fun or pleasure by saving money.

"A lot of people think all their fun is going to be cut out if they start saving money," Britt says. "They think they're diminishing their lifestyle, and emotion makes them unable to see the long-term picture."

Take emotion out of it.

The most successful way to save, and keep doing it, is to make it automatic, whether through a 401(k) retirement plan, an IRA or some other form of savings.

Because you don't have to take action or think, there's nothing to prevent you from saving.

Another trick: Start banking a monthly debt payment as soon as you pay it off.

So if you've been paying $250 per month on a car loan or credit card and pay it off, start an automatic draft the next month to funnel that money into a savings account or IRA.

"You won't miss it," Britt says. "Psychologically, you've already adapted to saving it because you've been paying it for years."

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