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 maybe they bought a house they couldn’t afford. Or waited until age 40 to start saving.
Here’s how to catch your mistakes, fix them and keep learning:
Mistake 1: Keeping up with friends
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. We recommend Money Talks News partner PowerWallet, but there are also other good money-tracking products on the market.
Mistake 2: Letting indulgences become habits
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. (Again, PowerWallet and other online services can be a big help.) By all means, treat yourself once in a while to a goodie you can afford, but then stop.
Mistake 3: Signing up and spacing out
I gave someone a six-month subscription to Netflix awhile back. Many months after the six months had passed, I realized I’d forgotten to cancel the gift. For some merchants, the holy grail of business is customers who sign up for ongoing monthly charges. When you do, you may forget to cancel that extra tier of cable or phone service you no longer need, or the free credit monitoring trial that starts charging your credit card after 30 days. These small charges mount up.
Better idea: Read bills carefully to spot services you no longer use. Call customer service 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
As soon as you leave the dealer’s lot with a new car, it 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 onto your car and drive it free after it’s paid off.
Mistake 5: Buying almost anything else new
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, appliances and electronics that look and work as well as new for a sliver of the new price. Of course some things — mattresses, shoes, computers, video cameras and stuffed toys, for example – you should never buy used.
Mistake 6: Paying interest on credit cards
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 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
You’re throwing away free money if you aren’t claiming every dollar your employer will 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. (Here’s the IRS publication with details.) Think you can’t afford to put enough in to get the company’s matching funds? Think again. You can’t afford not to.