Money mistakes happen all the time — and you’re not alone if you have a few financial regrets of your own.
In fact, a 2019 study by Finder.com found that an estimated 126.5 million American adults admit to having made a money mistake at least once in their lifetime.
While money mistakes are arguably subjective — you might regret having so much student loan debt, but that degree was necessary to launch your career — there are, however, a handful of missteps that experts agree you can easily avoid.
Here are five common money mistakes and steps you can take to avoid them.
1. Not having an emergency fund
If 2020 taught us anything about our finances, it’s the importance of having an emergency fund to tap into when unexpected events arise such as a job loss or unplanned medical bills.
When you don’t have any extra cash set aside, you’re forced to use expensive ways to finance your life. This can include racking up high-interest credit card debt, taking out a cash advance or relying on payday loans. Accessing many of these financing options will also be tied to what kind of credit score you have, says Leslie Tayne, a debt-relief attorney at Tayne Law Group. Your credit score helps lenders decide how much credit to give you and what interest rate to charge you. If you have a low score, you might not get the best rates.
If you’re just beginning to build up an emergency fund, Tayne suggests starting off small.
“Even saving a small amount, such as $25 a week, will yield $1,300 at the end of the year,” she says. Other financial advisors recommend using any financial windfalls, such as a stimulus check and/or tax refund, to kick-start your emergency fund if you have your basic needs covered.
“Even a $1,000 cushion can take considerable stress off of your shoulders,” says Danielle Harrison, a Missouri-based CFP at Harrison Financial Planning.
Not all financial advisors agree on what to do if you’re juggling high-interest debt and trying to save for an emergency fund. Some experts argue that building an emergency fund before paying off your credit card debt is bad advice, while others recommend prioritizing your emergency savings before fast-tracking your debt pay off.
“Many people loathe consumer debt and are motivated by being completely debt-free,” says Wilson Muscadin, financial coach and founder of The Money Speakeasy. “While that is a fantastic and worthwhile goal, it shouldn’t be at the expense of being prepared for an emergency. They are essentially betting that they won’t have a financial emergency in the period of time it takes to pay off that debt.”
Open a high-yield savings account to start your emergency fund
High-yield savings accounts earn you more interest than a traditional savings and the best ones have no fees or balance minimums. The Marcus by Goldman Sachs High Yield Online Savings, for example, made CNBC Select’s ranking as one of the best because it offers no fees whatsoever and easy mobile access.
2. Paying off the wrong debt first
If you have student loans and a car payment and credit card debt and a mortgage, it can be hard to know what to tackle first. But financial advisors caution that you should be careful which balance you prioritize paying off.
“I find that many individuals pay extra toward their mortgage with a rate of 3% instead of attacking their student or car loans that often have much higher interest rates,” says Kelly Welch, a Pennsylvania-based CFP at Girard, a Univest Wealth division.
When working on you debt payoff plan, start by writing down all your balances and the corresponding interest rates. Welch recommends tackling your highest interest rate debt first, like credit cards, then moving onto lower rate debt, like mortgages.
“I encourage my clients to treat [credit card] debt with a sense of urgency, at times even pausing retirement contributions until they can get their balances under control,” Brenton Harrison, a Tennessee-based financial advisor at Henderson Financial Group, tells CNBC Select. “Paying them off not only improves your credit score, but also frees up room in your budget to contribute more toward savings and investments.”
Paying off your high-interest debt also helps you save in more ways than one, argues Tayne. “It’s impossible to save money when you’re paying more in interest fees on debt than you are saving each month,” she says.
Consider a balance transfer to accelerate your credit card debt payoff
Balance transfer credit cards offer introductory zero interest periods so that you have more time to pay off your credit card balances while avoiding accruing any additional interest. The U.S. Bank Visa® Platinum Card comes with 20 months of no interest on balance transfers and purchases (after, 13.99% to 23.99% variable APR), plus no annual fee.
3. Missing out on employer matching contributions
According to advisors at eMoney, this is a common money mistake they see younger people making.
If your employer offers a 401(k) match program, you should make sure you contribute at least up to that point so you can take advantage of the full benefit. Employer-sponsored retirement savings accounts also offer tax advantages to help you fund your retirement by having you make pre-tax contributions from each paycheck.
“By not contributing, you’re essentially leaving that free money on the table,” Welch says. “Any little contribution helps and the earlier you get started in life, the better off you’ll be.”
You should also consider making a bigger contribution if you can. Oftentimes, people may think that they’re putting in the max for their 401(k) plan once they reach 100% of their company’s match, says Scott Schwalich and Shon Anderson, Ohio-based CFPs at Anderson Financial Strategies. “But the true maximum contribution for any individual is $19,500 per year, and an extra $6,500 per year in catch-up contributions for those aged 50 and over,” Anderson tells CNBC Select.
4. Not having credit monitoring or an alert service set up
“It’s as easy today as it’s ever been for someone to fraudulently charge something on your accounts, open an account in your name or steal your identity,” Schwalich says.
While freezing your credit can protect you, the simplest way to catch any fraudulent activity in your name is to sign up for a credit monitoring service that does the work for you and immediately alerts you of any potential danger.
There are a bunch of free credit monitoring resources out there, Schwalich says, so this one is a no-brainer.
CNBC Select ranked the top credit monitoring services and top identity theft protection services. CreditWise® from Capital One ranked as the best overall free service for credit monitoring because it offers dark web scanning and social security number tracking, plus a credit score simulator tool. IdentityForce® ranked as the best overall identity theft services for offering the most extensive security features that monitor your information on the dark web, court records and social media.
5. Allowing ‘lifestyle creep’ to occur
When your income increases, it’s not surprising to you find yourself splurging more often than you used to, aka “lifestyle creep.”
Rather than buying expensive new things when you can afford them, take that extra money and prioritize your short- and long-term financial goals first. “If you’ve never experienced the money it is much easier to not know what you are missing,” Harrison says.
Joe Lum, a California-based CFP and wealth advisor at Intersect Capital, has another name for it: “lifestyle drift.”
“We’ve all heard the logic before — ‘I make more money now, so I can afford it. I worked hard for this salary increase, I deserve it,'” Lum says. “While celebrating milestones can create a positive feedback loop to help you reach your long-term goals, this thinking can lead someone to overspending their newfound windfall.”
Make sure you have a plan for any increases in salary or bonuses, such as paying down debt or increasing your savings. “Then any extra can be used to improve your standard of living,” Harrison adds.
“Most importantly, having a plan gives you a reason to say ‘no’ so that you may say ‘yes’ to something in the future,” Lum says.
If it helps you avoid ‘lifestyle creep,’ Harrison also suggests getting off social media where people tend to constantly compare themselves to others.
“When we bombard ourselves with images of others’ ‘best’ lives, it is hard to not yearn for more,” Harrison says. Know that spending more on consumer products won’t make you happier in the long run. Instead, focus on social connections, experiences and giving back when you can.
Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.