1. Accepting-and using-a credit card I couldn't pay for. When I got a department store card pressed on me as a college freshman, I thought it would be useful for emergencies--which ended up including, as I recall, a nice sweater and Fido Dido socks. Creditor calls commenced within months, and I got spooked enough that I kept my card limits abnormally low into my 30s.
2. Not negotiating my first salary. I still remember the startled silence after I jumped at the first number they threw out: $20,000. Later I'd find out from savvier coworkers that just saying, "Can they do any better?" could have netted me an extra $2,000 a year. Yes, 10 percent more, just by asking. But I accepted that first offer, just as a reported 93 percent of women do. Raises and new-job pay tend to build off what you've been making, so one study estimated that taking the first offer on your first job could lose you more than $500,000 by age 60--not to mention what you miss out on by not negotiating subsequent jobs. Years later, having wised up, I responded to a low-ball offer with "I wouldn't be able to accept that." Did they rescind? No. Did they think I was stuck-up? I don't know. All I can tell you is that they eventually coughed up about 50 percent more.
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3. Hiding from bills I thought I couldn't pay. "It's human to try to avoid pain, which is why so many people do this," says Amanda Clayman, the financial therapist behind the blog The Good, The Bad, and The Money. Her solution: baby steps. "Tell yourself, All I'm going to do is put these bills in order of when they come due," she says. "You'll often realize it's not that scary."
4. Not "acting my wage." Anti-debt guru Dave Ramsey uses this phrase, and it defined my early 20s: going out, shopping, springing for girlfriend getaways. I assumed--since my friends and I were the same age, in equivalent jobs--that we all had the same spending power. It never entered my mind that they might be getting financial help, or going into debt, or that the true guide to what I could afford should be a budget, not my peers' spending habits. I certainly wasn't saving, either. I wish I'd had a site like savedplus.com, where you can set a percentage of your spending to be socked away. Say you decide to save 10 percent; when you budget for and buy a pair of $70 shoes, $7 more will be sent to a hard-to-tap account. It's funny, as my friends and I have gotten older, we've all gotten thriftier. And nothing helps you save more than having thrifty friends. Potluck at my place, y'all?
5. Supporting a broke boyfriend. In my early 30s, I once received a call at work from my live-in because he needed me to buy him a pair of pants. When I mentioned this to my best friend, she told me straight out that pouring money into a feckless boyfriend is like investing in a company you own no part of. Clayman adds that a relationship like this might be out of balance in other ways. "I bet there was something you were getting out of it--a sense of power, maybe," she says. Guilty as charged.
6. Getting a fat raise and immediately moving into a luxurious loft. This is so common that it has a name: lifestyle creep. And you don't have to give in to it like I did. Bank a raise for even six months to boost your emergency fund and you'll be ahead of me.
7. Thinking my fiancé was a genius with money. When I met my now-husband at age 35, he impressed me by monitoring his accounts every day, giving me investment advice, and not needing me to buy him pants. So when we merged our cash, I checked out of money management entirely. Doesn't work that way. "If you have a two-adult household, both need to know what's going on financially, even if you just have a regular meeting where you share information," says money and relationships expert Scott Palmer, who, with his wife, Bethany, wrote The 5 Money Personalities: Speaking the Same Love and Money Language. We weren't, so it was remarkably easy to overspend. That's how we ended up…
8. Going into debt to pay for our big, fancy wedding. The party was fun, but dumb, dumb, dumb.
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9. Having way too many fights about money. For a few years, we'd pay off some bills, then rack up more… and argue about them. The dynamic changed only after I concentrated on informing myself and saving. I found some personal-finance blogs and got pumped reading about how other people paid off debt. I stopped lashing out at my husband, and we began to talk strategy. Once we got serious about throwing every penny at the problem, it took a year to erase our debt. That was the beginning of our new take on cash.
10. Not giving enough. As I got more in control of my money, I realized that my real goal was to use it to further the values that matter to me. Yet for years I didn't give to charity, thinking I didn't have enough to share. Reality check: Proportionally, in study after study, the groups that give the most are not those that have the most. In fact, most wealthy Americans give only 2.8 percent of their income. So I've put the charity line higher up in my budget. It's listed after "Car expenses" and "Clothing" as "Creating the world I want."
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