No one is perfect when it comes to how they handle their finances. Everyone splurges now and then, or accidentally forgets a bill is due and has to scramble to send in a payment at the last minute. But while perfection isn't expected, there are some big mistakes many Americans make that could come at a tremendous cost to their long-term financial security.
What are these major mistakes that could lead to financial calamity? Here are three -- along with some solutions for solving the related problems and getting back on track.
1. Not having an emergency fund
About 1/4 of Americans have no emergency savings at all according to a 2018 Bankrate survey. This is a big problem, since a 2015 Pew survey found about 60% of Americans experienced surprise expenses over the past year. When you have no cash to cover an emergency, you have very few good choices when the car inevitably breaks down or other problems arise. Turning to a credit card is a common response to these situations, but charging unexpected expenses can leave you struggling with debt it will take months or years to pay off.
An emergency fund is essential to avoid high-interest consumer debt and have peace of mind about your money. To provide the necessary protection, you should save around three to six months of living expenses. That's a big jump up from having no savings at all, so it's OK to start small. If you can save up just a $2,000 emergency fund, you'll be prepared to cover many of the most common surprise costs. You can do this quickly by saving your tax return, pocketing bonuses and cash gifts, picking up a side gig for a few months, or seriously cutting back expenses for a short time until your emergency fund reaches the desired level.
Over time, you can work on saving up a bigger emergency fund by transferring a set amount to a special savings account every month. Once you've got money in an emergency fund, only touch it for true emergencies -- and replenish the fund ASAP if you're forced to take money out of it.
2. Not knowing where your money is going
According to an older Gallup poll, only about one in three Americans has a detailed budget. Although more recent studies suggest a higher percentage of Americans are now budgeting, there are still millions of adults in the U.S. who don't know where their money goes. And unless you both have a budget and track your spending, you're probably one of them.
Having a budget is important, but it's equally important to make sure you're living on the budget you've set for yourself -- which is where tracking spending comes in. When you keep track of how your money is used, you can make sure you're saving an appropriate amount and spending on the things that add the most value.
Fortunately, there are plenty of apps that can help you track spending, including Mint, which makes it easy to categorized transactions and generate reports about where your money is being spent. You can link your bank account and credit card right to your app in many cases so you can automate the process. Or, if you want to be more hands-on with money management, you can enter transactions into a spreadsheet to see what you're doing with your cash each month.
By monitoring spending, you can not only make sure you're on track, but you're also much more likely to be conscious of what you're buying. This can help you keep even more money in your wallet.
3. Not saving enough for retirement
Recent research from the Stanford Center on Longevity found that Americans in every age group are contributing far too little to retirement savings. Median employee contributions to 401(k) plans ranged from 4% among Americans ages 25 to 34 to 4.86% among Americans aged 55 to 64. Even when factoring in an employer match to 401(k) contributions, the median percentage of income saved was below 10% for every age group. This is a huge problem, since experts recommend saving at least 10% of income for retirement -- and evidence suggests even 10% isn't enough any more.
Boosting retirement savings is essential, as everyone needs money to live comfortably during their golden years. While it may seem hard to save more now, think about how much more difficult it will be to cope with being broke in your 70s or 80s.
To make sure you're prepared for retirement, increase retirement savings ASAP. It's OK if you have to start small by upping your contributions just a little. But you should inch your savings rate up over time as you get used to living on less. You should also bank all your raises until you hit your retirement savings goal, allocating the extra cash to investment accounts before you ever get used to living on it.
Automating contribution to a 401(k) or other retirement savings account is the best way to make sure you're hitting your target goal. Have the money taken directly out of your paycheck on payday, either by setting up automatic contributions with your 401(k) administrator or with your brokerage firm if you're investing in a retirement account that isn't through your employer.
Don't make these 3 money mistakes
Now you know three big money mistakes millions of Americans are making. If you're one of them, try to start saving for emergencies and retirement today. If you track your spending and live on a budget, coming up with the cash to accomplish these important goals will be much easier. And while it can be a challenge, you'll have much more peace of mind -- and much more money -- if these financial mistakes are no longer mistakes you're making.