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'52 Week Money Challenge': Smart strategy or flawed fad?

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Have you heard about the 52 Week Money Challenge? It's sort of a fad diet for finance, a simple way to save almost $1,400 in the next year.

The money-saving plan has swept across social media since the first of the year. The challenge promises participants a relatively painless way to build a nest egg in just one annum.

The 52 Week Money Challenge asks participants to up the amount they tuck away by $1 every week. During week one, you put $1 in a jar. Week two – $2. Jump ahead to week 21 – you're socking away $21. (See? We told you it was simple.) Do the math. In the final week, when you stuff $52 in the jar, you will have accumulated $1,378.

There's a Facebook page for savers to share their triumphs, charts and templates where they can track their cash, an app to provide weekly reminders and Pinterest jars to prettify the project.

In a debt-ridden, savings-starved world, what's not to like? A story on the challenge by the Gannett News Service reminds us that financial experts say we should all have savings to cover six months to a year of expenses. "Saving that amount can be overwhelming for a lot of Americans who don't by nature save money for the future. The 52-week savings plan is less intimidating and is fairly easy to do," the story said.

But a Minnesota consumer blogger says there's a better way to accomplish the same goals. Carrie Rocha's Pocket Your Dollars website advises using the gimmick in reverse. Rocha, a penny-pincher who offers readers loads of money-savings strategies, is the author of Pocket Your Dollars: 5 Attitude Changes That Will Help You Pay Down Debt, Avoid Financial Stress, and Keep More of What You Make.

She said she plans to do the challenge, but will start by setting aside $52 in the first week and decrease the amount by a buck each week. (Let's dumb that down: Week 52 – $1.)

How come? Rocha says newbie savers will be more powerfully motivated by quicker results. "After four weeks I’ll have an extra $202 in the bank. Under the rules of their challenge you would have saved a measly $10," she writes, and adds that it may be easier to start with the bigger amount than to end with it. "If $202 seems like a lot of money to save in January, then trust me, it’d be an impossible amount for you in December," she concludes. "Let’s do the hard work right now, when our motivation is highest. Then, come next Christmastime we only need to find an extra $10 in our budget. Nice."

Rocha also thinks it's dumb to stash the cash in a jar. "Consumable products come in jars. This challenge is about saving. It’s not about consuming, so a jar is the wrong tool," she insists. To say nothing of the temptation of the cash sitting where you can get it. She advises setting up a free savings account and automate deposits.

Regardless of the method used, Rocha urges consumers to build their savings. "Commit yourself to the cause," she advises. She also suggests it is helpful to have a purpose for the savings. "I’d recommend you save toward an emergency fund, unless you already have 3 months of living expenses set aside. Personally, we have an emergency fund so I’m earmarking this money toward my family’s $2,000 medical deductible," she volunteers.

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