Financial regrets. We’ve all had a few. But there’s a big difference between making an impulse purchase that you second-guess the morning after and making a major decision about your money that could haunt you for a lifetime.
We reached out to dozens of financial planners and personal-finance experts for their views on some of the most consequential mistakes people can make with their money. We also offer advice on fixing these mistakes — or avoiding them altogether — so you’re not left ruing the day when you blew your budget, wiped out your savings or otherwise sabotaged your financial future. Take a look.
1. Borrowing from your 401(k)
Taking a loan from your 401(k) can be tempting. After all, it’s your money. As long as your plan sponsor permits borrowing, you’ll usually have five years to pay it back with interest.
But short of an emergency, tapping your 401(k) is a bad idea for many reasons. According to John Sweeney, executive vice president for retirement and investment strategies at Fidelity Investments, you’re likely to reduce or suspend new contributions during the period you’re repaying the loan. That means you’re short-changing your retirement account for months or even years and sacrificing employer matches. You’re also missing out on the investment growth from the missed contributions and the cash that was borrowed.
Keep in mind, too, that you’ll be paying the interest on that 401(k) loan with after-tax dollars — then paying taxes on those funds again when retirement rolls around. And if you leave your job, the loan usually must be paid back within 60 days. Otherwise, it’s considered a distribution and taxed as income.
Before borrowing from a 401(k), explore other loan options. College tuition, for instance, can be covered with student loans and PLUS loans for parents. Major home repairs can be financed with a home-equity line of credit.
2. Claiming Social Security early
You’re entitled to start taking benefits at 62, but you probably shouldn’t. Most financial planners recommend waiting at least until your full retirement age – currently 66 and gradually rising to 67 for those born after 1959 – before tapping Social Security. Waiting until 70 can be even better.
Let’s say your full retirement age, the point at which you would receive 100% of your benefit amount, is 66. If you claim at 62, your monthly check will be reduced by 25% for the rest of your life. But hold off until age 70 and you’ll get a 32% boost in benefits – 8% a year for four years – thanks to delayed retirement credits. (Claiming strategies can differ for couples, widows and divorced spouses.)
“If you can live off your portfolio for a few years to delay claiming, do so,” says Natalie Colley, a financial analyst at Francis Financial in New York City. “Where else will you get guaranteed returns of 8% from the market?” Alternatively, stay on the job longer, if feasible, or start a side gig to help bridge the financial gap. There are plenty of interesting ways to earn extra cash these days.
3. Paying the minimum on credit cards
Americans’ plastic addiction is taking a toll on their bottom lines. The average household with debt owes $15,762 on credit cards, according to personal finance website NerdWallet.com.
“It can take years and years and years to potentially pay off that credit card debt with the amount of mounting interest costs,” says H. Kent Baker, professor of finance at the Kogod School of Business at American University, “especially if one continues to charge more and more and more.”