Everyone faces some regrets, and financial regrets are common. It should come as no surprise that past financial mistakes weigh heavily on Americans' minds.
Not all regrets are equal, though, and some are more harmful than others. Some are also easier to correct if you catch them early, while others take years -- or even decades -- to recover from.
The four most common financial regrets Americans struggle with, according to a new survey from New York Life, are:
1. Not saving for retirement earlier
2. Relying too heavily on credit cards
3. Not establishing a healthy emergency fund
4. Not paying off credit card balances each month
Some of these can cause more long-term damage than others. On average, survey respondents said it took them 11 years to recover from not saving early enough for retirement, while not paying off credit cards took an average of five years to correct.
In some cases, these mistakes can cause a lifetime of financial stress, or even create other problems along the way. For example, if you wait too long to begin saving for retirement, it may become incredibly difficult to save as much as you need by retirement age. If you don't establish an emergency fund, you could be forced to rack up debt to cover an unexpected expense -- which then may also cause you to put off retirement saving.
That said, all hope is not lost if you share some of these financial regrets. The sooner you realize these mistakes, the easier it is to correct them.
Catching up on retirement savings when you're off to a late start
Not saving for retirement earlier is Americans' biggest financial regret, and also the one with the most significant long-term impact. Delaying by even a few years can make it much more difficult to catch up, and you'll need to supercharge your savings in the years you have left before retirement. But it can be done -- especially if you go into retirement saving with a strategy in mind.
First, make sure you set a (realistic) goal for yourself. If you're in your 50s and you don't have a penny saved for retirement, it may not be realistic to set a goal of saving $1 million by age 65. But if you still have a few decades left to save and you're willing to make sacrifices, you may still be able to achieve major savings goals.
Run your numbers through a retirement calculator to get an estimate of how much you should save by retirement age and what you need to save each month to reach that goal. You may need to comb through your budget and make some cuts to find more money to allocate to your savings, but if retiring comfortably is an important goal of yours (which it should be), it's worth the sacrifices.
If your results are less than ideal and you can't reach your ideal savings goal no matter how many sacrifices you make, it's time for plan B. Still try to save as much as you possibly can each month, but also start thinking about how to get the most bang for your buck in retirement.
For example, you may choose to delay claiming Social Security benefits. By claiming at your full retirement age (FRA) -- which is either age 66, 67, or somewhere in between, depending on the year you were born -- you'll receive the full amount you're entitled to each month. But if you wait until after your FRA to claim, you'll receive extra cash on top of your full amount every month for the rest of your life. Even if it's only a few hundred dollars per month, this extra money can go a long way if your personal savings are falling short.
Another option is to think about how to lower your living expenses in retirement. For instance, could you downsize your home or move to a less expensive city when you retire? Perhaps you could spend your time on free or inexpensive hobbies rather than taking expensive vacations. Every dollar counts when your savings are limited, and adjusting your retirement expectations can help you live on less.
Building an emergency fund to avoid other financial regrets
Besides not saving early enough for retirement, not having a solid emergency fund is the common regret that takes the longest to recover from; survey participants said it took an average of nine years to get back on track after making this mistake.
Establishing an emergency fund may seem like just another task on your never-ending list of financial priorities, but it can help you avoid countless other money disasters. Unexpected expenses will inevitably pop up, and when you have a healthy emergency fund, you won't have to worry about racking up debt or taking money from your retirement savings to cover these costs.
Try to save enough cash to cover three to six months' worth of living expenses in your emergency fund. If that goal seems overwhelming, break it down and set smaller goals for yourself along the way. For example, right now, do what you can to save $100. Then make it your next goal to reach $500. Then $1,000, and so on until you've built a robust rainy day fund.
You can't get through life without a single regret, but you can learn from your mistakes. Even if you're behind on your retirement saving or have put off building an emergency fund, it's never too late to get started.