These money blunders erode our budgets, retirement savings and financial security. Here's how to identify them and address them.
Everybody messes up with money now and then. Ask anyone. If they’re honest, they’ll tell you their regrets. Maybe they moved their 401(k) savings into cash accounts after the stock market crashed in 2008, missing the market gains since then. Or they bought a house they couldn’t afford. Or waited until age 40 to start saving.
Here are some of the most common mistakes, how to fix them and keep learning:
Mistake 1: Keeping up with friends
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One of the fastest ways to get into money trouble is trying to match the lifestyle and possessions of people around you. Status matters to most of us. That’s the culture we live in. But playing when you can’t pay? That’s financial suicide. Genuinely successful people are more independent.
Better idea: Creating the life that fits you and you alone takes guts. Get your financial life under control by tracking your spending. Fortunately, doing so is easier than it ever has been with free online tools. You could try using Money Talks News partner PowerWallet or other good budgeting products on the market.
Mistake 2: Letting indulgences become habits
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You can rationalize a small luxury because it’s cheap. Spending $5 on haute coffee isn’t a bad splurge once in a while. But do it every day and that $5 treat is a $150-a-month expense — that’s $1,800 a year — just for your daily cup of joe.
Better idea: Track your spending, daily or weekly if possible. It’s the hands-down best way to control it. A simple budget is easy to make and gratifying to use. (Or, again, PowerWallet and other online budgeting tools can be a big help.) By all means, treat yourself once in a while to a goodie you can afford, and then stop.
Mistake 3: Putting subscriptions on autopilot
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I gave someone a six-month subscription to Netflix a while back. Many months after the six months had passed, I realized I’d forgotten to cancel the gift. Many merchants enjoy streams of income from customers who sign up for ongoing monthly charges and then forget to monitor the charge. Remember to cancel that extra tier of cable or phone service you no longer need, or the free credit monitoring trial or premium channel preview period that starts charging your credit card after 30 days. These small charges really mount up.
Better idea: Read bills carefully to spot services you no longer use. Call the customer service folks at your phone and cable companies twice yearly to review your accounts for better deals or features you can drop.
Mistake 4: Buying a new car
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As soon as you leave the dealer’s lot with a new car, your new car or truck depreciates 10 percent, and then another 10 percent by the end of the first year, according to Carfax. Translation: A new car costing $30,000 is worth $27,000 after driving it off the lot, and about $24,300 after a year. Registration and insurance are also more costly for new cars.
Better idea: Buy used. “These days, 100,000 miles is merely the halfway point for a lot of vehicles,” says Bankrate. Save the money you’d have spent and put it to work. Hang on to your car, and drive it for free after it’s paid off.
Mistake 5: Buying almost anything else new
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Why pay a premium for new books, toys, clothes, cars, tools and sports gear when you can get them for a discount used?
Better idea: Before shopping retail for a new purchase, see what kinds of deals are available on used goods. You can often find furniture, jewelry, clothes, appliances and electronics that look and work as well as new for a sliver of the new price. Of course there are some things — mattresses, shoes, digital cameras and stuffed toys, to name a few — you should never buy used.
Mistake 6: Paying interest on credit cards
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If you are paying, for example, 20 percent interest on credit card balances while your savings are earning just 0.2 percent, you’ve got things upside down.
Better idea: Rates on credit card balances are insane. Why pay up to hundreds of dollars monthly to borrow money to buy something when your savings are earning far less? If your job’s safe and you have some money in savings to spare, use it to pay off high-interest debt. Next, rebuild your savings and pay off the entire card balance every month. Never borrow money at those rates again. Before signing up for a credit card, comparison shop. Check competing savings account rates, too.
Mistake 7: Ignoring your employer’s 401(k) match
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You’re throwing away free money if you aren’t claiming every dollar your employer is willing to contribute to your retirement plan or 401(k).
Better idea: Never, ever turn down free money, not to mention that nice tax deduction you get by contributing to a traditional 401(k) plan. You’re allowed to pay as much as $18,000 a year into a tax-deferred retirement plan such as a 401(k). Over 50? You can make an additional $6,000 in catch-up contributions. (See details from the IRS.) Think you can’t afford to put enough in to get the company’s matching funds? Think again. You can’t afford not to.
Mistake 8: Borrowing to buy stuff that loses value
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A new car may be your biggest depreciating purchase, but there are plenty more. When you take out a loan or use a credit card to buy toys — big-screen TVs, audio equipment, video and still cameras, or high-end sports equipment like new skis and boots — you are undermining your financial health.
Better idea: Pledge to pay only cash for toys and bling, whether a snowboard or a dress for a special party. Consider dropping expensive mindsets, too: “If you are an ‘early adopter’ of electronics like the new 3-D televisions, you are also paying too much for little more than bragging rights to your friends,” blogs Matt Breed at Money Crashers.
Mistake 9: Chasing credit card rewards
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This is a tough one. Capturing rewards points is like a game. It’s fun, especially if you are working toward a goal like a free trip. But you may be overspending.
Better idea: Beware of driving yourself into a financial ditch in pursuit of “savings.” The way out? Revisit your financial goals to reinforce how much more important they are than chasing points. The bottom line: If you’re carrying a credit card balance, it’s time to cut up that card and pay it off. (See: “Is Your Rewards Credit Card Costing You Big Bucks?“)
Mistake 10: Living with no emergency fund
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You’re walking a tightrope without a safety net when you have no emergency fund. Scary, huh? But only 41 percent of Americans have the savings to cover an emergency expense, according to a 2017 Bankrate survey.
Better idea: Build an emergency cushion to cover your net take-home pay for seven or eight months. For example, if you take home $4,000 a month after taxes, your emergency fund should be $32,000.
- Treat this fund like any other bill; contribute to it every month.
- Put your fund where it’s harder to get at — maybe in a savings account (not checking) at a bank you don’t use otherwise.
- Keep saving. After you’ve fully funded your emergency account, use your extra cash to pay down debt or build up retirement or college savings.
- Read “9 Ways to Build an Emergency Fund When Money’s Tight” for guidance.
For more ideas on saving, read “7 Ways to Make Your Savings Grow Faster Automatically.”
Mistake 11: Letting bank fees drain your accounts
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You’ve worked hard for your money. You don’t want it going to bank fees for overdrafts, out-of-network ATMs and checking account maintenance.
Better idea: Keep a cash cushion in accounts to avoid overdrafts, switch to a bank that offers free checking if possible, sign up for electronic alerts to stay on top of account balances, and get cash back when you use your debit card at the grocery store to avoid out-of-network ATMs. For more ways to keep your cash in your hands, read “14 Ways to Avoid Paying Irritating Bank Fees.”
Mistake 12: Raiding your retirement savings
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What a tempting pot of money your 401(k) can be, especially when an emergency strikes or you’re short of cash.
Better idea: Do all you can to avoid raiding your retirement savings. You’ve worked hard to get this far. Besides, it’ll cost you. Yes, you can borrow from your 401(k), but that means that money won’t be growing in your account. And the amount you borrowed will become due in full if you lose your job. When you change jobs, don’t cash out the account. You’ll pay a penalty and taxes. Ask your HR department for help rolling your savings into another tax-deferred account.
What are the money bloopers you wish you could undo? Share them in the comments below or at our Facebook page.