A look at the 52-week savings challenge

Let's face it: Saving money is difficult. It's not for a lack of discipline and sacrifice. There are real reasons Americans can't save. We're spending more, but earning less, according to research by the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts.

The organization found families were more financially strapped in 2014 than in 2004. Spending rose as the cost of housing, food and health care went up, but families earned less money because income levels have not recovered from the recession of the late 2000s. Median income fell 13 percent between 2004 and 2014, the report found, while housing costs and other expenses rose by about 25 percent.

As a result, 63 percent of Americans don't have enough savings or cash on hand to pay for a $500 to $1,000 emergency, according to Bankrate.com. To cover something as common as an unexpected car or home repair, 15 percent of families said they'd have to go into credit card debt, and 15 percent would have to borrow from friends or family to cover the costs. One-third of Americans have no savings at all.

And while it's difficult to fix systemic problems in the economy on a personal level, families can apply financial Band-Aids that help stop money from bleeding out of our bank accounts.

Here's one tactic. It's called a 52-week savings challenge, and many people have successfully jump-started their savings with one. In this challenge, you literally use pocket change to get ahead.

Once a week, every week, for one year, you'll deposit a small amount of money into your savings account (or piggy bank), using the chart as a guide to help determine the amount. Each week, the deposit amount increases by 50 cents. If you successfully complete the challenge, you'll have banked $689 over 52 weeks. That's enough to cover a small emergency.

The first week, you'll deposit 50 cents. In week two, it's $1. In week three, you'll save $1.50, and in week four, it goes to $2. By week 52, you'll need to put $26 in your savings account.

If you're worried money will be too tight at the end of the year to find $20 or more each week, you can modify the challenge. You don't have to do the weeks in order. All that matters is that you do them all.

For instance, on weeks when you have more money to save, deposit the highest amount on the chart that you can. Say you have an extra $14. Put it in the bank, then cross off week 28. If you have only $5 the next week, deposit it and cross off week 10. At the end of the year, you'll still have $689 as long as you complete all the weeks.

“Ultimately, any number can be crossed off, depending on how the week goes. By giving you the flexibility to choose the amount each week, you have a better chance to complete the challenge,” said Jeffrey Strain, founder of SavingAdvice.com.

The challenge is popular on his website, a personal financial advice forum where real people talk and blog about their money issues, ask questions and share strategies for getting ahead.

I've used the 52-week challenge to save up for Christmas gifts, but it also could be a tool to save for vacations or to beef up the emergency fund.

Small amounts do make a difference!

—Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance. Follow her on Twitter at @DeniseTrowbridg.

Chart Source: SavingAdvice.com