My friend's grandmother used a simple savings strategy to buy property in San Francisco on a seamstress' salary. Living by her rule has helped me fill my emergency fund.

  • A friend passed on her grandmother's advice about saving: "If you make a little, save a little. If you make a lot, save a lot."
  • That advice struck a chord with me and made me want to improve my savings habits.
  • Before, I was a risk-taking spender. Now, I have a healthy savings habit that stems from tucking away whatever amount of money I can.
  • See Business Insider's picks for the best high-yield savings accounts »

To say that I didn't manage money well when I was first starting out in life would be an understatement. I overdrew my first checking account because I didn't understand what an outstanding check was. I spent beyond my (very limited) means and ran up credit card debt. I tried to save money, but I always found a reason to spend down my savings.

I didn't think I needed to save for retirementor even a rainy day. I was certain I would be a millionaire with money to spare before I was ready to retire.

I was a speculator and a gambler. I knew you had to spend money to make money, and I believed my next big break was right around the corner. Putting money into my business seemed like a better investment in my future than a silly old savings account.

Researchers group people into three categories when it comes to savings habits: regular savers, irregular savers, and those who don't save. It's taken me a while to move from the non-saver category to the regular saver group. Advice from an immigrant grandmother, told to me by her granddaughter, started me on the road to better savings habits.

Slow and steady yields savings rewards for a hard-working immigrant

As I drove along Upper Market Street in San Francisco with a friend from my women's business class, she pointed out a couple of pieces of property that her grandmother had owned. Then she told me a story about her grandmother that has remained a touchstone for me ever since.

My friend's grandmother gave her an important piece of advice: "If you make a little, save a little. If you make a lot, save a lot." Her grandmother's story showed the power of this philosophy.

After immigrating to San Francisco from Italy, she earned money by doing piecework sewing at her home. In time, she saved enough to buy a house. As the years passed, she leveraged her capital to buy multiple properties in San Francisco. (Side note: While San Francisco real estate commands astronomical prices now, that wasn't always the case. Homes in the City by the Bay used to sell for prices more in line with other cities in the US. Another of my friends related that her family owned a three-unit building in the desirable Noe Valley neighborhood in the 1970s that was valued at $25,000. A real estate agent advised them not to invest money to improve the property because they wouldn't get it back when they sold it. Ha!)

Before I heard the advice from my friend's grandmother, I assumed that, if I didn't have much money, there was no point in saving. The amounts would be so small that saving would be an exercise in futility. "Save a little, save a lot" resonated with me, however, and I decided to become a saver. 

Savings habits can be learned

I realized that my plan to start saving once I struck it rich was likely to fail. People tend to be savers or non-savers. Savers will follow the advice to "save a little, save a lot." Non-savers don't save money, even when they have a lot of it. If I didn't get into the habit of saving a little when I had a little money, I probably wouldn't save a lot when I had a lot. If I was ever to strike it rich, I didn't want to end up like the many lottery winners who end up bankrupt after their windfalls.

I desperately wanted to become the kind of person who saves money. To do that, I would need to develop strategies to help me save — a little or a lot. 

These are the things that have helped me build up my savings:

  • I started putting money aside. At first, I took $20 in cash and put it in an envelope every time I got a paycheck or paid myself from my small business. Today, I put money into a savings account and make contributions to my retirement account as well.
  • When I feel broke, I still put money in my emergency fund and retirement accounts. Even a $5 contribution is worthwhile because that reminds me that I am a saver.
  • When I get a chunk of cash, such as a tax refund or a gift from a relative, I put at least one third of the money into savings. This is an irregular contribution to my savings. These larger inflows of cash have helped me build my reserves. It's satisfying to see my savings account balance take a big step up. And, as I become used to having more money in savings, I'm motivated to save more.
  • Whenever I draw a paycheck with a company that lets me send a portion of my paycheck to savings, I put away as much as I can afford to spare. I find it's easier for me to save if the money goes directly into savings and never hits my checking account. 

I'm not perfect at saving by any means. But I'm grateful to my friend for sharing her grandmother's wisdom. The "save a little, save a lot" philosophy continues to inspire me to build my savings muscle.

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