Jack Otter, author of Worth It...Not Worth It?, explains half a dozen screwups we all fall for—and strategies to avoid them.
Money Mistake #1: You Used Your Debit Card to Pay for Gas, an Appliance, a Rental Car, Reserve a Hotel Room or Anything Online
Buy a coffee at Starbucks with a debit card and $2.01 will be deducted from your checking account—end of story. But fill up your car for $30 and the gas station might put an $80 "hold" on your checking account for a couple of days until the station reconciles its accounts and transmits your purchase to the bank. While that money is locked up, you can get hit with overdraft charges for subsequent purchases—even if you have enough money in your account.
The worst move is to check in to a hotel with a debit card but pay the bill with a different card. The debit-card company might keep the hold for as long as 15 days, unaware that you paid with another card. Spend four nights in $250 hotel room, and, when the phantom incidentals are added in (a hotel might tack on an estimate for anticipated minibar or room service charges to the "hold"), you could lose access to $1,100 of your own money for half the month.
Solution: Use a credit card—which also comes with protections such as extended warranties, travel insurance and the ability to withhold payment if you don't get what you paid for. Just remember: As found in an experiment at MIT, people using credit seem to be willing to pay far more than they would if they use cash. If you're already carrying a balance, you may be paying the equivalent of an overdraft fee every month in interest charges. In that case, your best bet is to cut up the cards and stick to debit until you've paid off your entire balance.
Money Mistake #2: After a Financial Crash, You Transferred Your Savings to "Safe" Investments
There are three kinds of risk: market risk, inflation risk and emotional risk—and every investment is subject to at least one of them. In the past few years, most people have come to understand market risk. Inflation risk involves the purchasing power of a dollar as it shrinks over time. For example, in 1971, you could get a Cadillac for around $7,000; today an Escalade goes for $45,000. Emotional risk may be the most devastating, and it's the hardest to control. You're probably sick of hearing investment experts like me tell you not to panic when the market hits a rough patch, but here's why we feel so strongly.
The stock market started to get really scary around October 2008: The Dow fell nearly 700 points in just one day. No wonder investors dumped $31 billion in stock funds over the next five months, right before the market bottomed. How'd that work out for investors who panicked? According to an analysis by Vanguard for this article, if everyone had put that money in cash—savings accounts and money markets—it would be worth $31.1 billion as of March 2012. If all those investors had put it in bonds, it would have done a little better—growing to $38 billion. Had it just remained in the market? It would have grown to $63 billion. So if you sold your stock funds in the teeth of the financial crisis and locked in your losses, your account hasn't grown (in fact, you may have lost purchasing power, thanks to inflation). If you stuck it out, you doubled your money.
Solution: You've heard it before: You need stocks to ensure a well-funded retirement. One option for nervous investors is to use a target-date fund, which will automatically reduce (market) risk as you get closer to retirement. Vanguard found that target-date fund investors were less likely to sell in the bear market than those who owned pure stock funds. And women, according to Vanguard, were 10 percent less likely to sell than men, which jibes with other studies that have found that women trade less and therefore perform better.
Money Mistake #3: You Forgot What Pampering Yourself Really Means
Think back to the first time you experienced a favorite splurge—try to recall something that so lit up the pleasure centers of your brain it is still seared in your memory. Now think about the last time you spent money on the same thing. Not so memorable? It's called "hedonic adaptation," and it's why, no matter what we have, we always want more. Expensive coffee every morning isn't a treat; it's a habit.
Solution: Step one: I know you've heard this before, but you need to create a budget. By putting your priorities down on paper, and funding the top priorities first, you can prevent yourself from paying for your barista's retirement instead of your own.
Step two: Reward good behavior. One of the reasons it's so hard to be a disciplined saver is that it's much easier to imagine the pleasure you'll get from that Frappuccino today than to picture what that $4 will be worth 20 or 30 or 40 years from now. Besides, what will you spend it on then anyway? Will caffeine still be legal? Reward yourself for virtuous saving behavior by splurging with 5 or 10 percent of money set aside for savings. But spend it only on something you don't buy all the time. You'll associate the reward with the saving, increasing the odds you'll continue to be disciplined.
Money Mistake #4: You Started to Pay Extra on Your Mortgage to Pay Off Your House Early
Paying off your house early sounds like a financially smart move. And it's hard to put a price on peace of mind. But a study by two University of Texas professors and a Federal Reserve banker found that diverting that money instead to a 401(k) was a better move. It's a long academic study, but the key is this: You pay off your mortgage with after-tax dollars, which means that for every $1 you make, only 70 cents or so goes to the bank.
Solution: Contribute pre-tax dollars to your 401(k), so the full buck goes in. Make that $1.50 if you get a company match. As that money compounds over the years, you come out far ahead.
It happens so often you may be numb to them by now: the carry-on-bag cost to the FCC line charge to the inconvenient "convenience fee" for ordering your movie tickets online. But here are a few entirely unnecessary fees that can really add up.
Prepaid cards: To take one example, the Rush Unlimited Card from Visa charges $3.95 to $14.95 for signing up, depending on which design you choose. (Seriously.) A monthly fee of up to $7.95, $2.50 for a cash withdrawal, and 50 cents just for checking your balance. Want a paper statement? That's another buck. Do you avoid carrying cash for fear you might lose it? Prepaid cards guarantee you will.
Solution: If you have enough money to load a prepaid card, you can open a savings account at many credit unions or an online bank such as ING Direct. There is no minimum. There are no fees. You get a free debit card. And instead of you paying the bank, the bank pays you a little bit of interest.
Layaway: There's something appealing about the return of the old-fashioned layaway—you don't own the item until you've actually ponied up the cash. But several large department and discount stores charge fees of $5 to $10, plus cancellation fees of $10 to $25.
Solution: Get an envelope, put your payments in it every two weeks, and once you have enough to pay for the item, head to the store.
Mutual funds: There may be no single fee that will take more of your money over your lifetime than the expense ratio in your mutual funds. When writing my book, I had to run the math on two different calculators, because the numbers were so big I was sure I'd made a mistake. All funds charge fees, but by using low-cost index funds, you'll save tons of money.
Here's an example using an SEC calculator: Lisa is 30 years old, and she and her husband have $40,000 in stock funds their 401(k)s. If the funds charge the average expense ratio of 1.3 percent, they will have $270,000 at age 65, assuming 7 percent annual returns and no more contributions. If they invest instead in a low-cost index fund that charges 0.07 percent, and earn the same return, they would have $417,000 at retirement. That 1.3 percent eats up $170,000 over three decades. Expense ratios are the single best indicator of returns: The lower they are, the more you'll make.
Solution: Log on to your 401(k), check the expense ratios on your funds today, and if you have the option, switch into index funds. If you have an old 401(k) that doesn't offer index funds, consider rolling it over into an IRA, where you get to choose the investments.
Money Mistake #6: You Fell in Love
Love can cause money problems—but not the ones you might expect. Most individuals have an internal financial math that makes their budget work: They cheap out on the things they don't care about and splurge on things they value. For instance, you may be perfectly happy to keep your grocery bills low by eating cereal eight times a week so you can splash out on clothing. Then you fall in love with a guy who lives in blue jeans and flip-flops but would never eat day-old bread. It's easy to start sharing each other's pleasures, but hard to give up our own. So you take his wardrobe up a notch, and he buys truffle salt at the grocery store...and as a couple, you pile on the new expenses while abandoning your former budgeting strategies.
Solution: Asking partners to stop doing the things that make them happy is a great way to build resentment and encourage financial infidelity. So instead, start with the fun stuff: Come up with a list of what you both value most and together build a budget that will help you achieve those goals. During that process, you'll each have to make sacrifices, but it won't feel as if your partner is living it up while you are being denied.