The good news: You can easily avoid all of them without breaking a sweat.
Anyone can make a mistake. They’re part of everyday life. Financial mistakes, however, can lead to problems for years to come if not corrected soon.
After talking to financial experts and others who have either experienced or seen other people make the worst financial mistakes of their lives, we compiled the following list of 25 of them. Many are common after graduating from college and starting a financial life on your own, but they can still happen to anyone at any age.
We should also note that these worst financial mistakes aren’t listed in any order. We’ll leave measuring their importance to you:
1. Not going to college
The average starting salary for a high school graduate is about $28,000. That figure almost doubles to $48,127 for college graduates in the class of 2014 with bachelor’s degrees, according to a salary survey by National Association of Colleges and Employers. Starting your working life by being that far behind in pay is one of the worst financial mistakes you can make.
2. Not paying off student loans fast
The average student loan debt for a college graduate is $28,400, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.
For a college grad who is earning some real money after four or more years of living like a student, it can be tempting to spend much of their new income before paying off debt. That’s one of the worst financial mistakes a graduate can make, says Alfred Poor, a college speaker and author of books about problems young people are having in the workplace.
“If college graduates tighten their belts and lower their expectations, and live like they only have the high school diploma, they will rapidly pay off their average $27,000 in student loans,” Poor says. “If they spend their whole salary on a more comfortable lifestyle, they could be struggling to pay off that debt for decades, and end up paying much more in interest.”
3. Paying off student loans too quickly
Paying off student loans quickly can also have a downside, says Steven Fox, a financial planner in San Diego with NextGenFinancialPlanning.com. If they use all of their extra income paying off student loans, they could be in financial trouble if they don’t put some in an emergency fund and lose their job or get in a car accident and have unexpected medical expenses, Fox says.
“They should really think about whether they should pay off their student loans as fast as they possibly can once they get their first job if it means that they’re doing so at the expense of not saving or investing anything,” he says. “Ending up with zero debt is good, but ending up with zero savings is very bad.”
An emergency could lead to borrowing money at a higher rate than what they were paying on student loans, says Fox, who reminds graduates that student loan interest is tax deductible for up to $2,500 for individuals making $80,000 or less without having to itemize.
4. Using max credit card limit
“Just because a bank offers you a credit card that allows you to spend money doesn’t mean you should,” Fox says.
This goes for all debt, he says. Being approved for a $20,000 auto loan doesn’t mean your budget for a car is $20,000.
“That money needs to be repaid,” Fox says, “and you are paying a very high cost to borrow it at this stage in life. Spending should be determined by a well thought out budget, not by the size of the line of credit.”
5. Living beyond your means with credit
Building an expensive lifestyle for yourself early in life is possible with credit cards, and is one of the worst financial mistakes anyone can make, says Matt Becker, a fee-only financial planner and founder of Mom and Dad Money.
“That debt will make it a lot harder to pursue exciting opportunities later on, and may even force you to stay in a job you hate just so you can make the payments,” Becker says.
6. Not having health insurance
Young people may think they’re invincible, but unexpected tragedies like a car accident can happen, causing a large financial setback early in life and leading to financial mistakes, Fox says.
Health insurance options for college-age students include staying on their parents’ health insurance until age 26, signing up for their school’s health program, or buying low-cost catastrophic coverage from commercial carriers.
7. Choosing money over mission
We all want to make money, and it’s hard to tell someone to turn down a bigger paycheck, Becker says.
“But you will find much more fulfillment from a job with a mission you believe in than one that simply pays a lot,” he says. “Make sure you’re paid what you’re worth, but don’t forget to make your work meaningful.”
8. Waiting to invest
After spending your first paycheck on something fun, set aside part of your next paycheck for investing, Becker recommends.
“The sooner you start investing, the sooner you’ll be able to say goodbye to that job forever,” he says. “And if your employer offers a 401(k) match, contribute at least enough to get that full match. That’s free money!”
9. Paying credit card bill late
Not making credit card payments on time can be one of the worst financial mistakes anyone can make, says Peter Creedon, chief executive officer at Crystal Brook Advisors.
Credit card companies can bump up interest rates to as high as 36 percent to late-paying customers, Creedon says. Pay your credit card bills in full each month to avoid interest charges.
10. Consolidating credit card balances
Know how your credit card company is going to categorize how your credit card balance consolidation is rolled over, otherwise you might be in for one of the worst financial mistakes ever, Creedon recommends.
“Some companies consider it a cash advance and assessed a slightly higher interest rate and put the amount behind the cards’ balance so the amount takes longer to pay off,” he says.
Develop a cash reserve of at least three months so you won’t have to take on more credit card debt, he says. “Become the bank and pay yourself instead of paying everyone else,” Creedon says.
11. Not asking your parents to cosign a loan
Many young people don’t have a long enough credit history to qualify for a car loan or first home purchase on their own, leading to one of the bigger financial mistakes, says Danna Jacobs, founding partner at Legacy Care Wealth.
Financially strong, mature young professionals with good relationships with their parents should avoid one of the worst financial mistakes in life by not asking their parents to cosign a loan because they want to maintain their independence, Jacobs says. Without their parents as cosigners, they’re missing out on an opportunity, she says, noting that only “financially strong, mature, young professionals” should do this.
12. Not asking for a raise early
Not asking for a raise, promotion or increased responsibility because you only have a short tenure at a firm is one of the worst financial mistakes you can make, Jacobs says.
“You may not get it this time, but when coupled with strong performance, it can increase the rate at which you would be bumped up to the next level,” she says.
13. Not recognizing investment bubbles
Figuring out when to enter and exit the stock market is something even experts have difficulty doing. Guy Smith, a marketing consultant in San Jose, Calif., says among the worst financial mistakes to make, his was not recognizing investment bubbles and therefore cheating himself out of an early retirement.
“I remember the Christmas before the (tech) bubble burst, my Uncle Bob said he had sold all his stock,” Smith says. “He being a savvy businessman, I wanted to know why he bailed. His advice was simple: ‘When you see a lot of people doing a stupid thing, run the other way.’ Had I exited when Uncle Bob did, I would have had $100,000 in cash in my pocket.”
Smith also didn’t act on the housing bubble. He bought a rental home in Florida for $100,000 that doubled in value seven years later. His long-term strategy for the house was to own a home paid for by someone else, so he held on to it. The value dropped and he didn’t sell at the peak for a $100,000 profit.
14. Buying new
Everything depreciates, especially cars, says Rick Sellano, owner of the writing service My Ink Shines. Buying new is one of the worst financial mistakes anyone can make, Sellano says.
He recommends buying used cars with low mileage, gently used furniture and other used items to save money throughout your life.
15. Focusing only on the present
Among the worst financial mistakes to make in life, focusing exclusively on the present is the worst, says John Vespasian, the author of seven books about rational living.
“If you fail to think long-term, you will render yourself blind to the best opportunities,” Vespasian says. “You will waste your money on foolish purchases. You will destroy your motivation to learn complex subjects. And you will surround yourself with the kind of people who are also incapable of thinking long-term.”
“People who focus exclusively on the short term tend to make incredibly stupid financial decisions,” he says. “In doing so, they subject themselves to high stress and anxiety that could have been easily avoided. A man who lacks a long-term perspective in his life will never be able to save money consistently, nor to spend it wisely.”
“Our society places a disproportionate emphasis on purchase that delivery little or zero long-term value. Few people take the trouble to acquire the discipline to think in terms of a lifetime. If you can see yourself living to become 100 years old, and realize what that means in terms of financial foresight, you will avoid making foolish financial mistakes.”
16. Focusing on monthly car payment
A common sales tactic at car dealerships is to get buyers to a monthly payment they’re comfortable with. Many buyers go in with a set amount they’d like to pay every month, and are happy to share that figure with the salesperson, says Jeannine Fallon, executive director of corporate communications at Edmunds.com. That can lead to one of the worst financial mistakes they can make as a car shopper, according to Edmunds.com.
“When you do that, you’re not actually talking about the total price of the car,” says Edmunds.com senior consumer advice editor Phil Reed. “You also need to take into consideration the interest rate, as well as the length of the loan.”
The dealer may suggest a longer loan so the car fits in your budget, but a longer loan also means you pay more in interest.
17. Not having renter’s insurance
Focusing on the present, however, can be important. Not having renter’s insurance was one of the worst financial mistakes that Eric Narcisco, CEO of EffectiveCoverage.com, made when he was young.
“After college, when I was living in an apartment in Jersey City, I came home from work one day to find everything I owned lost to a fire that my neighbor had started,” Narcisco says. “I didn’t have much at the time, but since I was just out of college I didn’t have much money to replace those things, either.
“I had convinced myself that I didn’t need renters insurance because I didn’t own anything to speak of. If a policy had been in force, I would have been able to replace all of those things quickly and move on with my life instead of spending years in the process just to get back to where I had already been.”
18. Not saving for retirement early
Layton Cox, a financial advisor at My Pathway in Tucson, AZ, says one of the worst financial mistakes someone can make is not saving for retirement earlier in life. It’s the top regret and one of the many financial mistakes Cox says he hears from people over age 45.
Saving $2,400 annually at age 25 with an 8 percent return will result in more than $52,000 saved at age 65 — 20 times what was originally saved, he says.
Waiting just 10 years longer to “get your life together” will grow that same $2,400 to a little more than $24,000 at age 65. That’s half of what you would’ve saved at age 25, but still 10 times what was originally saved.
“The problem is, most people don’t save for retirement until they are in their late 30s to early 40s,” Cox says. “In their 20s, they save for a downpayment, vacation, or they are too busy paying off student loan debt. In their early 30s, they are saving for a bigger house or children’s education.
“It’s not until the kids are about to leave the house that most Americans save for retirement. This ruins their chance of benefiting from compounding interest.”
19. Taking on more risk than you can afford
As Bernard Kliban once wrote, “Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head,” which is good advice for investors in terms of risk, says Jim Pearce, CIO of Baton Investing in Falls Church, VA.
Don’t trade options, buy penny stocks, or speculate in commodities unless you really can afford to lose every penny, Pearce says of financial mistakes to make when investing.
“Too many investors try to play ‘catch up ball’ by engaging in reckless investing that usually ends up in a wreck, putting them even further behind the eight ball,” he says.
20. Mimic other investors
This is partly in contrast to #13, but mimicking someone else’s investment strategy can be one of the biggest financial mistakes of your life, Pearce says.
“For some reason most people seem to think that anyone else’s judgment is better than their own, so there is a tendency to blindly duplicate what another person tells you they are doing in the market,” he says.
That leads to two problems: (1) they may be lying and only telling you that to impress you, and (2) even if they really are doing that, they may have no idea why they are doing it, either (or doing the same thing you are, and copying someone else).
21. Investing with a friend
Investing in a friend’s or family member’s business opportunity is one of the worst financial mistakes anyone can make, Pearce says. “It’s human nature to want to help the people you care about, but giving them your hard-earned money to capitalize their high-risk business venture isn’t the best way to do it,” he says.
Instead, offer to provide them with a low/no-rent housing situation (if you have the space) so they can live on very little income until their business gets going, or hook them up with someone else who really is in the business of in investing in high risk ventures, Pearce recommends.
22. Pyramiding profits
When an investment is going good we tend to think it will go on forever, so we sink even more money into it, Pearce says. This is sort of like betting double or nothing until you inevitably lose. Instead, set a limit on how much money you are willing to risk on any one thing and stick to it, which could help avoid this and other financial mistakes.
23. Allowing money drains
It’s OK to reward yourself with the occasional night out on the town or well-earned vacation, Pearce says. Those sorts of things don’t help your balance sheet, but provide psychic wealth.
“However, engaging in potentially costly behaviors such as gambling, substance abuse, or simply buying things you don’t really need create ‘money drains’ that rob you of the opportunity cost of putting that cash to better use in something that has value and can sustain you later in life when you really need it,” he says of financial mistakes.
24. Not paying taxes
One of the worst financial mistakes someone can make is not paying income taxes, says Nicole Erwin, a licensed tax professional at Tax Defense Network.
“What many people of all ages fail to realize is the significance of creating or ignoring issues with the IRS,” Erwin says. “If you choose not to file your returns, for instance, a series of undesirable events are sure to follow.”
First, the IRS may file a Substitute for Return (SFR). This allows them to use whatever previous tax information they have on you (no matter how inaccurate) coupled with information provided by your employers to file your return. This substitute can work to your disadvantage by creating a tax liability that could have been avoided if you’d simply filed accurately, on time, she says.
“If you do wind up with a tax debt and you don’t pay it, you’re really asking for trouble, Erwin says. The IRS can place a lien against you, destroying your credit, or garnish your wages or bank account. If the debt persists, the IRS can even seize your property and assets. And while these are all serious actions, the worst is yet to come.”
“The problem with unpaid tax debts is they tend to become inflated in a short period of time,” she says. “The amount you originally owed quickly mutates with the addition of penalties and interest. What you end up with is a staggering tax bill which has destroyed your credit and haunts you for years.
“By the time you realize just how big of a mistake you made, you’re not young anymore — and you’re in a conceivably worse position to do anything about it. None of this has to happen, of course. If you have a tax debt, consult with a licensed tax professional who can ensure your youth is spent on more entertaining pursuits.”
25. Not having a personal financial advisor
Just as everyone needs a family physician, a financial practitioner is needed every bit as much, recommends Rob Drury, executive director of the Association of Christian Financial Advisors. Without one, you could be headed to other financial mistakes.
“A financial advisor’s job is absolutely identical to the doctor’s; he assesses wellness, diagnoses illness, prescribes cures, and designs wellness programs,” Drury says. “He simply performs these functions in the financial realm rather than the medical.
“Employing a qualified advisor and being accountable will prevent one from committing most financial mistakes. Most basic planning functions can be performed at little or no cost.”
That’s our list of the worst financial mistakes to make at any age. What are some of the worst financial mistakes you’ve made?