10 Most Common Personal Finance Mistakes
All of us are guilty of a few bad financial habits. When financial advisers first meet with clients, they usually find a familiar set of money-losing miscues, from checking credit reports too infrequently (or not at all), paying too much for insurance, or buying stocks for the wrong reasons.
Rarely are any of these bad habits alone enough to sink us. But taken together over time, these small leaks in our financial ship rob us of amounts we’d never stand for losing all at once.
We asked several financial advisers to name the most common personal finance mistakes they find, and provide solutions to each. The good news is that some of the most frequently made missteps are also the most preventable.
Ahead of the new year -- always the season for financial reckoning -- we offer a look at these common mistakes, and ways to stop making them.
By Jennifer Leigh Parker
Updated 20 December 2012
Overpaying for Home Insurance
Odds are the premium on your homeowner’s insurance is too high. In a recent survey by insurance provider ACE Private Risk Services, 78 percent of independent insurance agents said homeowners are overpaying for their house insurance.
What to do: Hike your deductible. By raising the amount you pay in the event of a mishap, you let the insurer off the hook for part of the cost and, in turn, lower your premium. “If a home is insured for $1 million and the owner who pays a $500 deductible raises that to $2,500, they can save $900 a year in premium savings,” said David Spencer, vice president of ACE private risk services.
Putting Off Buying Life or Health Insurance
You’re healthy, so you don’t think you need to insure yourself against sickness, injury, or death. The older you get, however, the more expensive insurance gets.
What to do: Start paying now and you’ll pay less. “The sooner you buy, the better off you are,” says Suzanna de Baca, vice president of wealth strategies at Ameriprise Financial. If you get insured at age 25, instead of waiting until you’re feeling mortal at 55, de Baca says, you can save up to $10,000 across those three decades.
Underestimating Health-Care Costs
Sooner or later, most Americans are taken surprise by a high co-pay charge, or prescription fee. This only gets more common — and more scary — as you grow older.
What to do: According to Fidelity, retired couples need an average of $10,750 per year to cover out-of-pocket medical expenses. This is 4 percent more than those who retired a year ago. When computing what you need for retirement, plan accordingly. Increase your contributions to your 401(k) or other workplace savings plans. If you have already maxed out your workplace savings plan, save additional money in an IRA.
Passing Up Tax Breaks
Small investors often look only at the return an instrument is giving them, and overlook how taxes take a bite out of those returns. Morningstar figures that over the 74-year period ending in 2010, investors who did not manage investments in a tax-sensitive manner gave up between one and two percentage points of their annual returns to taxes.
What to do: First, take a look at which of your investments are taxable, tax deferred, or tax-free, says John Sweeney, executive vice-president of Fidelity’s Planning and Advisory Services, and plan to commit some ordinary income to tax-deferred accounts, such as defined contribution plans such as 401(k)s or traditional IRAs and annuities.
When buying and selling stocks that pay dividends, or managing your mutual funds, bone up on tax rules about qualified dividends — those paid on stocks that you’ve held for 60 days or more within prescribed windows that qualify the dividends to be taxed as capital gains.
Selling stocks even a day to soon can result in paying tax on dividends as ordinary income, costing you 10 percent or more.
Paying Late Fees
Are you paying late fees, even though you keep up with your bills? Late fees not only add to expenses, they can negatively impact your credit score.
What to do: Mounting late fees are usually the result of due dates that are scattered throughout the month without regard to any rational schedule. You simply need to align your due dates.
Call your credit-card companies, utilities, and other service providers and ask to have your due dates changed to your paydays, when you have money available. Most companies have two billing cycles a month, and will gladly accommodate your request to switch to the one that makes sense for you, says online account manager Manilla.com. Next, create a monthly bill reminder calendar that works for you and pick one or two days during the month to pay all of your bills.
Buying Stocks by Their Brand
Small investors often buy stock because they have a good experience with the company. This makes perfect sense, but make sure to ask yourself what it is you like: Is it the product or the service? Or something less bankable, such as the image of the brand? Going with your gut without doing your homework can lose you money in a hurry.
What to do: Image counts, but price and valuation matter more, says Brian Gendreau, market strategist for Cetera Financial Group. “Investors who buy stocks without regard to price often find themselves with dead money for years to come.”
Gendreau suggests you check out the price-earnings ratio, or P/E, one of the main metrics analysts use to compare values between companies. Many financial sites (including CNBC.com) calculate the P/E ratio for you, but you can do it yourself by dividing a stock’s current share price by its earnings per share.
If the number is high relative to other stocks in the same sector (like retail or technology), what you’re buying may be too expensive, relative to other companies.
Investing Too Conservatively
A recent Fidelity study found that many young investors have low (or even no) stock exposure in their portfolio. This is understandable, given the ill treatment the stock market has been dealing out in the past few years. The thing about no risk, though, is there’s no reward. The financial system is pretty much built on it.
What to do: Make the most of the years you have ahead to grow wealth. Consider increasing your stock exposure or you “may hinder the portfolio growth opportunities needed over time,” according to Fidelity’s John Sweeney.
Of course, your age, retirement goals, financial situation, and tolerance for risk should guide your decisions, as well. But consider: An aggressive mix of 83 percent stocks (foreign and domestic) and 17 percent bonds growing at an annual rate of return of 8.35 percent will earn $350 a month more than an asset allocation of 50 percent stocks, 40 percent bonds, and 10 percent cash.
Though not an investment snafu, paying full price on purchases can be a big drain on your finances. In today’s digital age, there are many tools available to help consumers make better buying decisions.
What to do: Make savvy comparisons. Websites and mobile apps like Red Laser, PriceGrabber, and NextTag find retailers with the best prices, according to Trae Bodge, senior editor for RetailMeNot.com.
Next, become a coupon cutter. You can find discounts online for everything from apparel to conference registrations via coupon code websites such as Bodge’s RetailMeNot.com. As for fashionistas, two words: flash sale. With sites out there like Belle & Clive, which sells designer brands at a discount, there really is no reason to pay full price.
Leaving Valuables Uninsured
Lately wine, art, and gold have become favorite investments, especially for high-earners. But according to insurer ACE Private Risk Services, nearly 40 percent of high-net-worth individuals don’t have their collections insured with a valuables policy.
What to do: Have your items appraised and shop around for insurance that fits your collection. If you already have insurance, consider whether you need an update. As your collection appreciates, its value may have outpaced the coverage you have on it, leaving you underinsured.
Not Checking Your Credit Score
We know you’ve heard it before, but if you don’t check your credit report at least three times a year, you may be leaving fraudulent charges undetected. Credit card companies, mortgage underwriters, or auto lenders could have a much different picture of you than you think. If they erroneously think you’re high-risk, they’ll charge you more to borrow.
What to do: Request a free credit report online from one of the three credit rating agencies — Equifax, Experian, or Transunion. Each is required to provide you with a free report once a year. Flag any unexpected changes to your report, such as loans you don’t remember, and report any discrepancies to the credit rating agencies. Don’t dismiss any odd item, no matter how small the amount — some thieves test your awareness with a small purchase to see if you notice, according to Manilla.com. A few months later, check again using another of the agencies.