Two weeks ago, during Financial Literacy Month, USA Today ran an article suggesting my generation needs to get a clue about money. Citing studies showing most young people have “poor financial literacy” and leading with the story of a 29-year-old who can’t budget, the article says, “Today’s twentysomethings hold an average debt of about $45,000, which includes everything from cars to credit cards to student loans to mortgages.”
At 26, I’ve accumulated $14,878 in student loans – not that bad compared to other students I’ve met, but not good considering I borrowed to get a graduate degree that I probably didn’t need. That’s my biggest blunder so far, but when it comes to money, older isn’t necessarily wiser.
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CNN tallied up the national average consumer debt at the start of the year: $210,236. Even if you take mortgages out of the equation, it’s still more than $36,000. And according to an April poll hosted by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), “When asked to describe the state of their personal financial situation, 80 percent of more than 1,400 respondents admitted their finances were in need of a major overhaul.”
How many of these mistakes have you made?
1. Paying much, earning little
Bad move: Paying 20 percent interest on a credit card while earning 1.25 percent on your savings.
Better move: After ensuring you’ve got an adequate cash cushion for emergencies, use low-earning savings to pay off high-interest debt. Exception: if there’s any chance you’ll lose your job, gather as much cash as possible.
2. Buying new when used would do
Bad move: Shelling out $20,000 to $30,000 for a new car.
Better move: Avoid a monster depreciation hit by buying used. Cars are made better today than in years past, which makes buying them used less risky.
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3. Passing up retirement plans
Bad move: Not participating in your employer’s 401(k) or other retirement plan at work, especially if they offer matching money. Not only are you failing to save for retirement, you’re missing potential tax deductions and something rare in the financial world: free money.
Better move: Sock all the money you can spare into a tax-advantaged retirement plan like a company 401(k) or an IRA. Take advantage of employer matching contributions and tax breaks.
4. Being the first on your block to own the latest gadget
Bad move: Waiting in line, paying a premium, or worse yet, borrowing so you can own the latest tech bells and whistles.
Better move: Being first is an expensive pastime. Wait a few months and you can own a debugged version for less.
5. Paying retail for stuff you rarely use
Bad move: Spending big bucks on a ladder, lawnmower, snow blower, or other expensive hardware you’re going to use infrequently.
Better move: Borrow rarely used stuff from friends or family, rent it, or form a neighborhood co-op to share the expense, storage, and use among the people on your block. Going in on something with just one neighbor reduces both cost and clutter by 50 percent.
6. Paying extra for low deductibles
Bad move: Paying a lot more for car, home, or sometimes health insurance because it includes a low deductible.
Better move: Self-insuring by raising your deductibles to as high as you can comfortably afford. Raise your car or home insurance from $250 to $1,000 and you can cut your premium by 15 to 30 percent.
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7. Buying books
Bad move: Paying $29 for a best-selling hardcover that isn’t as good as your friend said and that you found too boring to finish. Even if it’s great, how many times are you really going to read it?
Better move: Reading the copy you already paid for – it’s sitting on the shelves of your local library. And you might not even have to leave your desk to get it, because it could be available as a free download – see our article Thousands of E-books: Free.
8. Paying for water
Bad move: Spending $1.50 for a plastic cylinder containing an abundant and freely available natural resource: water.
Better move: Buying an insulated water bottle and filling it yourself. Don’t trust your local water quality? Purchase a home water filter.
9. Buying into brands
Bad move: Paying $8.50 for 100 name-brand tablets of acetaminophen.
Better move: Looking a few inches further down the same shelf and getting the 500-tablet bottle of the generic brand with the same exact ingredients for $11.99, thus saving 70 percent. Read 7 Things You Should Always Buy Generic and stop contributing to some big company’s advertising budget.
10. Wasting savings
Bad move: Saving $500 a year being a little more frugal, then wasting it on a $2 coffee every weekday morning.
Better move: Whenever you figure out a way to carve a few bucks out of the budget, increase your savings by a like amount. Otherwise, you’re likely to fritter it away elsewhere – the financial equivalent of running in place.