How can the greatest country on Earth not be so great with its money?
I seem to spend much of my day making myself unhappy. That’s because I read as much research as I can about the financial habits of average Americans. The results of that research can be depressing.
Here’s what I’ve learned just in the past month, followed by some advice if you sheepishly see yourself in these studies…
1. Credit cards don’t improve with age
You’ve heard of credit card loyalty programs. Alas, Americans are too loyal to their credit cards.
According to CreditCard.com, “32 million U.S. credit cardholders haven’t changed their preferred credit card in at least a decade and another 21 million have never switched.”
I’ve controversially recommended Americans ditch all their credit cards for at least a little while. In my second book Power Up, I wrote, “Learning to live without a credit card is an integral part of financial empowerment. Those who don’t use credit cards take money much more seriously than credit card users.”
However, I realize for most Americans, the thought of cutting up all their credit cards is downright scary. For those few who pay off their balances each month, credit cards are a boon in cash back, reward points, and airlines miles.
What you should do: If you’re indeed one of the privileged Americans who carry no balance and rack up significant points, you’re leaving money on the table by not shopping around at least once a year. Credit card companies are savvy and competitive, so they occasionally offer excellent deals to compel you to switch. Take advantage.
If you don’t believe me, listen to CreditCards.com’s senior industry analyst Matt Schulz: “If you never change credit cards, you miss out on a big opportunity to rack up rewards. It’s as simple as that.”
2. Wide-eyes about closing costs
For almost all of us, the most expensive thing we’ll ever buy is a home. So it makes sense that you’d do your homework before plunking down six figures.
Alas, a real estate research firm called ClosingCorp announced its latest study under this headline: “More Than 50 Percent of Homebuyers Are Still Surprised by Closing Costs.”
To be more specific: “When asked what surprised them about their closing costs, 17 percent of all homebuyers were surprised costs/fees were even required.”
If these homebuyers were surprised by closing costs, I’m more surprised by them. When I first became a CPA more than two decades ago, it was difficult to find all the relevant information about buying a home. It often meant a drive to the library. Today? You can locate everything you need to know on your phone.
What you should do: If you’re house-hunting, arm yourself first. Besides any number of reputable online resources you can consult, consider a first-time home buyer program. These are state-run, so they vary widely. However, they can offer not only advice but “buying assistance.” Locate the programs in your state by visiting this list from HUD.
3. Didn’t see the fee
An online-only bank called MemoryBank recently asked 12,000 Americans about their banking habits. Turns out “many consumers did not know what they were being charged for ATM or monthly account maintenance fees.”
That’s a problem, since more than 30 percent of the respondents “reported using an ATM 10 or more times in the last 12 months.” In addition, “more than 20 percent of respondents did not realize their bank charged a monthly maintenance fee just for using it.”
No wonder just three of the nation’s top four banks earned more than $6 billion in ATM and overdraft fees. That’s your money, and you gave it to the banks when you didn’t have to.
What you should do: Once again, let me hark back to the old days when I was first a financial consultant. back then, learning about your bank fees meant reading very small print on a sheet of paper mailed to you only every so often. Today, you can search bank websites for details on all fees — and there are many of them. There’s simply no excuse for not knowing what your bank is dinging you in fees. You can find out in literally five minutes.
Want to make me happy? I know you do. All I ask is that you use the Internet to save you money.