5 Money Mistakes You Might Be Making (and How to Avoid Them)

If you could have more money in your checking account, you'd definitely take it, right? It probably comes as no shocker to you that it's really easy to let your funds slip away. But what you might find surprising is how simple it can be to turn things around for the better. Here are 5 common money mistakes with doable solutions.

Money Mistake #1: My Money Is Disappearing

No one starts the month planning to fritter away a small fortune, but that's what can happen when minor expenses spiral out of control. It's not just shopping at Saks that gets you into trouble. Seemingly innocent purchases - $15 jeans at Target, a few things for the kids at a two-for-one sale, the occasional Frappuccino - can do real damage to your bottom line.

What does it take to waste $10,000 a year? Just $27.40 a day. "You can undermine some of your most important goals with purchases you'll never remember," says Suzanna de Baca, president of Private Capital Solutions Group, a Des Moines, IA, investment advisory firm.

The fix: Know thyself financially. First step: Take five minutes and read through your latest bank statement. If the transactions seem unrecognizable and you have no idea why you went to the ATM a dozen times, spend a week tracking your spending (longer, if possible).

You can use a notebook, keep receipts in an envelope, try software like Quicken, or check out an online budgeting tool, like these two money sites we tested. Whichever you choose, find a money-tracking method that lets you see your purchasing patterns with fresh eyes.

Tip: Simple Ways to Save on Groceries

Money Mistake #2: I Throw Away Cash

Who would pass up free money? Maybe you, if you make only the minimum contribution to your employer's 401(k) savings plan - or opt out of the plan on the grounds that money is tight. According to the 2008 Wachovia Retirement Survey, only about a quarter of women with 401(k)s contribute the maximum allowed. Puny 401(k) contributions mean you aren't taking full advantage of any free matching funds your company offers. Says De Baca: "If your boss offered to add $25 to your weekly paycheck, would you turn it down? Of course not." Most employers match all or part of the first 3 to 6 percent of pay employees contribute.

That might not sound like much, but take a look at the math: Assume your company will kick in 50 cents for every dollar you put in, up to 5 percent of your salary. If you're 40 and making $40,000 but decide not to fund your 401(k), you could be giving up almost $230,000 over 25 years.

The fix: If money is so tight you can't imagine saving two bucks, start small. You don't have to put in the maximum $15,500 annual contribution ($20,500 if you're 50 or older). Instead, increase your contribution by 1 percent of pay a year, until you get the full match. One painless way to save: When you get your next raise, use all or part of it to bump up your 401(k) contribution.

If your employer doesn't offer a match, that doesn't mean you should skip making contributions. Remember, a 401(k) lets you put away money tax-deferred. This doesn't just lower your current tax rate; your earnings can really grow, because Uncle Sam isn't taking a bite out of them.

Tip: Learn How to Protect Your Savings, Stock, 401(k), and Other Assets


Money Mistake #3: My Kid's Budget Runneth Over

Many parents find themselves wrestling with financial discipline when it comes to their children, says Galia Gichon, creator of "My Money Matters" Kit, a box of financial tips and workbooks. Whether it's snacks for the little ones at the market or new skate shoes for your tween, "it's amazing how quickly saying yes can add up," says Gichon, a New York City financial planner and mother of two.

Tip: How to Get the Best Deal on Absolutely Everything

The fix: Rather than simply saying no to your kids' endless wish lists - which can lead to wrenching battles - protect your budget and sanity by teaching your children Money Management 101. "Distract and delay" tactics work especially well for children age 6 and under. If your young daughter is jumping up and down for something she wants at the store, says Gichon, "try focusing her attention on something else, or acknowledge what she wants and say that you can talk more about it later when you're home." You may have to endure a little complaining, but your child gets an important message about not buying things on a whim.

Tip: Need Help Sticking to a Budget? Try These Tips


Money Mistake #4: I Never Saw a Windfall I Couldn't Spend

Whether you receive a raise, a tax refund, or a generous birthday check from Aunt Dotty, it's hard not to view a windfall as an excuse to go shopping. Splurging can be fun, but that's rarely the best use of your extra cash. "Few Americans are saving enough to cover day-to-day crises, never mind the future," says Jonathan Pond, author of Grow Your Money!

The fix: To make sure you don't feel deprived, earmark some of the newfound money for a modest treat (Aunt Dotty would want it that way). Gichon suggests using 5 or 10 percent for something fun: "That way you do something for yourself - while deciding what to do with the rest."

Put the remainder of the money where you won't be as tempted to touch it. Consider an FDIC-insured, high-yield online savings account such as the one offered by ING Direct. It has no minimum balance requirement or fees, and this account typically pays higher-than-average interest rates.

Next, consider where the money would do you the most good. Tackle any small, urgent problems first - a sore tooth, the clunking sound your car makes, leaky windows. This will help avert the hardship of paying for a string of bigger expenses later on as little problems snowball into debt.
Set aside some of your windfall for expenses that you can't predict precisely but you know will be coming sometime. "You may not know when your cell phone will quit or the water heater will break, but they will," Pond advises.

Tip: Check Out 25 Ways to Save More Money This Year

Money Mistake #5: I Forget What I'm Worth

If you're a stay-at-home mom or you work part-time, you may not have enough life insurance. Many women are under­insured because they've under­estimated their income or the value of their contributions to the household. De Baca recalls one client whose wife died in her 30s and had only a $100,000 life insurance policy, which didn't cover the need for child care for the couple's young children or the housekeeping chores the client then required.

The fix: A rule of thumb to determine the amount of insurance coverage that you need - multiply your annual expenses by the number of years until your youngest child will turn 18. (Some parents may also want to factor in the future cost of their kids' college.) Life insurance premiums actually have plummeted in recent years. So if you're a healthy nonsmoker in your 30s or 40s, you can now buy a $500,000 term insurance policy for about $40 a month.

You and your partner should revisit your insurance coverage annually - or at least after a major event, like the birth of a child. "It takes a lot to run a household, and you want to be covered," says De Baca.

Tip: Learn How You Can Pay Less for Insurance

What are your biggest hurdles when it comes to savings? Have you discovered any tips for stashing more in the bank?

More from Good Housekeeping:

Reprinted with permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.