Image: Couple and cash © Digital Vision Ltd., SuperStock

In a perfect world, we wouldn't need tricks to save money.

Life isn't perfect, though. The national savings rate has edged up to around 5% -- an improvement over recent years -- but it means that Americans, on average, tucked away only about a nickel of every dollar.

Plenty of people "seem to think they can't afford to save," says Rebecca Schreiber, a financial planner in the Washington, D.C., area. She acknowledges that the unemployed or the deeply indebted can't put aside much.

But it's essential to have a plan to build savings, if only a dollar at a time. Suppose you were able to squirrel away as little as $2 to $5 a week. In a year, that would be $104 to $260 that might otherwise have gone to sodas, magazines or the dollar menu. Doesn't sound like much? When you need a couple of new tires, you'll wish you'd skipped those cheeseburgers.

There is no magic, and there is no free ride. But there are ways to make the process less painful -- even a little pleasurable.

Spend a little, save a little

Give yourself an allowance for fun. Put that amount in an envelope each payday or fold it in your wallet. Once it's gone, that's it -- no fair dipping into savings. (But you get extra credit for putting leftover discretionary spending funds into savings next payday.)

Message board reader "ATSiaRU" says that knowing she has a certain amount of money to spend any way she wants "makes it easier to put money earmarked for future purchases or long-term goals into the bank."

Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman

I'd never tried this until recently, when I decided to allot myself $10 a week for fripperies. Knowing that I could spend the sawbuck has thus far kept me from feeling that I have to spend it. It's like a little green security blanket.

Of course, you could also spend your allowance the first day of the month. Or the last day. The point is that your savings should stay right where they are.

Can't touch this

Financial educator Katerina Taylor admits being occasionally tempted by thoughts like "I really want that purse." However, most of her money is in a pair of online banks that require at least 48 hours for transfers. This is enough of a cooling-off period to make her realize she doesn't really want that purse.

Another way to keep her mitts off the moola: Taylor sets most of it up in laddered certificates of deposit, which carry penalties for early withdrawal. However, the CDs mature regularly enough that money would be available for a nonfashion emergency.

A reader posting as "NancyinFL" set up automatic withdrawals from her checking account into a "one-way" fund -- no debit card. She dubbed the account "Next Life" because it's the seed money for a new career.

Picture this

In the past few years I have opened several additional checking accounts, earning bonuses of $25 to $100. My best deal thus far: getting $200 recently to open a business checking account. At the same time, I got a business credit card and was given 30,000 in rewards points after the first use; these points converted into $300 cash.

It all goes into an account I named "Home." The idea of a home of my own inspires me to look for more ways to boost the balance: manufacturer rebate checks, payment for occasional baby-sitting gigs or handyma'am jobs, cash-back shopping rebates, wrapped change and payments from online surveys. Generally I add a couple of dollars from my wallet, too.

Thus far I've put aside more than $2,000. It's not a fortune, but plenty of it is money that might have otherwise dribbled away.

I envision an entire home, but message board reader "Tiredboomer" focused on just a kitchen. She had a cabinet store design the culinary center of her dreams, and she kept a picture of the plan by her desk "as inspiration to try to put as much money as possible in my kitchen account."

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It took a couple of years, but now she's cooking in style -- and she paid cash.

It wouldn't hurt to rubber-band a photo or advertisement of your goal to your credit card or debit card either. When you want to stop for takeout instead of going home to heat up leftovers, you'll see the picture of that new baby who will one day need to go to college.