Author: Christy Bieber | April 26, 2018
It all adds up
Americans work more hours, take less vacation, and retire later than anyone else in the industrialized world. Yet, despite all these hours spent toiling on the job, most Americans have little to show for their labor.
More than three-fourths of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and 71% of American workers are in debt. It's not just lower income Americans who struggle; around 10% of households with income over $100,000 annually say it's hard to make ends meet.
Why don't Americans have more cash? There are a lot of big reasons, such as student loans and expensive housing. But, there are also lots of other expenditures that add up too. More than 8 of 10 Americans admit to wasting money, and in many cases, this wasted spending isn't just a few dollars. Most Americans are wasting thousands of dollars -- and you're probably one of them.
To figure out where your biggest money drains are, consider this list of 30 things you're probably wasting money on right now.
1. Bank fees
Americans pay an estimated $17 billion yearly in bank fees for insufficient funds and overdrafts, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. These costs are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to bank charges. ATM fees, monthly maintenance fees, and other bank costs imposed for your checking account can total around $1,000 over the course of a decade, on average.
While you need a checking account, you don't need one that will charge you a fortune. You could reduce the costs of bank fees by as much as two-thirds if you switch to a consumer-friendly bank. Look for a bank that provides free ATM use and reimbursement if you use a foreign ATM. If you won't be able to meet requirements for maintaining a minimum balance, look for a bank that won't charge you a maintenance fee if your daily balance drops below a certain level.
Finally, whatever you do, avoid overdrafting your account. You can do this by keeping extra money in the account if you have it, or by carefully tracking your balance if you can't afford to give yourself a cushion right now.
2. Late fees
If you pay your credit card late, you'll usually get hit with a late charge between $15 and $35. Paying your mortgage, utilities, or rent after the deadline also typically results in a fee being charged. You'll even pay more for returning a Redbox movie rental a day late or for not returning library books on time.
Being late with payments not only costs you money, but it could potentially hurt your credit too -- although most lenders won't report a late payment until you're behind by at least 30 days. Making matters worse, credit cards also impose penalty APRs in many cases for late payments, which means your interest rate could rise dramatically.
If getting payments out on time is a problem, set up autopay to cover at least the minimum balance due before the due date. You can also have a calendar of upcoming payments or use apps such as Mint that remind you when a bill is due.
If you've accidentally paid something late, it's also worth asking if it's possible to get the late fee waived or the record of the late payment removed from your credit report. Most companies will work with you if you have a good record of being on time and simply made one careless error.
3. Unclaimed 401(k) matches
Around a quarter of Americans are wasting thousands in free money by not taking full advantage of a 401(k) match.
A 2015 study found that 1 of 4 employees wasn't investing enough in a 401(k) to earn a full employer match. The average employee who failed to earn the match ended up leaving $1,336 of money on the table.
If you miss out on this money, you're cheating your future self out of financial security. To fix this problem, talk to human resources or accounting at your company to find out what the employer match is and increase the automated investments in your 401(k) until you're investing at least enough to get the full match.
While you may feel like you can't afford to divert extra income to your 401(k), the reality is that you can't afford not to. Most workers have far too little saved for retirement, and you can't go back in time to save once you discover that Social Security isn't enough to sustain you.
Making the effort to get your full match is definitely worth it. You know the average employer match currently going unclaimed -- investing just that amount alone would give you around $151,000 if it was invested annually and earned 8% over a 30-year period.
4. Tax deductions and credits you're not claiming
Around 20% of taxpayers eligible for earned income tax credits don't claim this benefit on their tax return, according to IRS data.
This isn't the only tax credit that goes unclaimed either. Taxpayers make all sorts of mistakes on their taxes, including failing to make the right choice about whether to itemize or claim the standard deduction or choosing the wrong filing status.
Online tax programs can help you catch deductions and credits you should be eligible for, but if you have a complicated tax situation -- such as if you are itemizing for the first time or have recently started your own business -- paying a tax professional for help maximizing your tax savings may be worth it.
5. Credit card interest
American households had credit card debt totaling around $16,425 on average in 2017, which was a 10% increase in indebtedness since 2013. At an average interest rate of 18.76%, the average household is paying around $1,292 each year in credit card interest.
If you owed the average and made minimum payments of $300 monthly, you'd take over 10 years to repay the debt and would pay more than $21,000 in interest along the way.
You don't want to spend decades repaying old debts and waste almost $1,300 every single year in the process.
Instead, create a debt repayment plan to repay what you owe as early and as aggressively as possible. Consider the debt snowball method and devote as much extra money as you can to the debt with the lowest balance. Once that's paid, roll all you were paying on that debt into the payment you make to the account with the next lowest balance -- and then keep going until all your debts are repaid.
While the debt snowball method may not make as much mathematical sense as repaying your highest-interest debt first, research has shown having wins along the way -- like repaying smaller debts -- keeps you motivated to continue your repayment efforts.
6. Extended warranties
Buyers are offered extended warranties on everything from TVs to appliances to vehicles. While you may think you're being financially responsible by buying a warranty, the reality is that extended warranties are typically a really bad deal.
Extended warranties generally come with a lot of fine print that excludes the most likely problems. Other extended warranties duplicate coverage provided by manufacturers for free. Either way, the FTC warns that many extended warranties aren't worth the price you pay for them.
Instead of buying an extended warranty, your better option is to start a savings account to cover the cost of repairing or replacing any possessions that break.
7. Airline fees
Airlines charge for everything these days, from seat selection to checking bags. Some airlines even charge you for bringing a carry-on item.
While paying airline fees may seem inevitable, you want to waste as little cash on these fees as possible by shopping around to compare prices from airlines that don't charge for basic services.
If a price seems very low, read the fine print to find out what additional costs you'll incur as you comparison shop for tickets.
You can also reduce the amount you pay in fees by getting an inexpensive luggage scale and weighing your items before you go so you can be sure to avoid overweight charges. Or, consider getting a credit card such as the Bank of America Premium Rewards card that reimburses you for up to $100 in incidental fees charged by airlines.
8. New cars
The average car loan takes 69.3 months to repay, and Americans are going deeper into debt to buy more expensive cars than ever. Car buyers, on average, borrow $31,000 for new vehicle purchases and are left with average monthly payments of more than $500 monthly.
For most car buyers, there is no reason to ever buy a brand new car, especially as a new car loses around 11% of its value the second you drive off the car lot with it.
If you opt for a reliable used car and take the shortest loan term you can afford, you'll repay your loan much more quickly. Drive your car as long as possible while you save the money you'd have used for car payments. Ideally, you should be able to purchase your next car with cash and can continue to save up for vehicles.
If you can avoid car loans, buy reliable used cars that you drive for a long time, and save the extra cash you'd have spent on new vehicles over the course of your career, you could end up with more than half-a-million dollars in a retirement account by the time you're ready to retire.
9. Driving too fast
The majority of all drivers admit to speeding while driving, and most speed on a regular basis. Unfortunately, there's a direct cost to speeding -- and not just if you get a ticket, which can lead to fines and higher auto insurance premiums.
Speeding can lower your gas mileage by as much as 30% on highways and 40% percent if you're in stop-and-go traffic. In general, every five miles over 50 MPH you go means you're paying the equivalent of $0.18 more per gallon for gasoline.
Speeding also increases the risk of a collision, and accidents are very expensive, especially if you're found at fault and have to pay for another driver's damages.
To save money and stay safe, drive the speed limit. You'll still get where you are going but you'll spend less money and be safer doing it.
10. Premium gas
Buying premium gas costs around $0.20 to $0.40 more per gallon, and it may not be necessary. Today's engines are designed to protect themselves so even when an owner's manual recommends premium, the car typically runs fine with regular gas.
If you're not sure whether to make the switch to premium or not, there are resources online, including a list at Edmund's of Premium Recommended versus Premium Required vehicles. If your current car does absolutely require premium, when you make your next vehicle purchase, consider opting for a car that you won't have to pay extra to gas up.
11. Brand-name medications
Generic medications could cost 30% to 80% less than brand name counterparts for the same formula. The FDA imposes stringent requirements on generics -- namely, that a generic medication must have the same dosage, effectiveness, strength, safety, stability, and quality as the original. The FDA even mandates that a generic medication must be taken or used in the same way as the brand-name product.
There's virtually no reason to buy the name brand if a generic is available. Ask your doctor to always write prescriptions that specify that a generic medication should be substituted for any brand-name products, and look for generic over-the-counter meds as well. Your physical health won't suffer, and your financial health should improve.
12. Bottled water
Americans spend an average of $100 per person per year on bottled water. That means a family of four is spending $400 per year just to drink a beverage that should be almost free. Bottled water costs 2,000 times more than water from the tap, and yet demand for bottled water continues to rise.
Instead of wasting your cash on costly bottled water, opt for an inexpensive filter on your sink or for a filtering water bottle, which costs around $9. While you'll need to replace the filter periodically, a single filter can replace hundreds of water bottles, so you still benefit from big savings.
13. Food you don't eat
The average U.S. household in America wastes $1,350 to $2,275 worth of food each and every year, according to the National Resource Defense Council. As much as 40% of food is wasted in the United States thanks to impulse buys, lack of meal planning, and cooking portions that are too large.
Investing that $2,275 into an IRA every single year for 30 years instead of throwing it away on food would net you more than $250,000 by retirement age, assuming an 8% return on investment. This is double the savings of today's pre-retirees.
To stop wasting money on food, make weekly meal plans and shop from a list. Don't shop while hungry, and don't throw away leftovers -- take them for lunch or freeze them for later meals on nights you're too tired to cook.
14. Flavored beverages
Soft drinks, fruit juice, and other sugar-sweetened beverages account for more than 7% of the average American's household grocery budget.
Not only are you paying for these sugar-sweetened beverages at the cash register, but you're also paying with your health. Sweetened beverages are a major contributing factor to the obesity epidemic and all the costs that go along with it.
Saving money on this one is easy: stop buying flavored beverages. Instead, drink water. If you feel you need more flavor in your drinks, you can add fresh fruit to make your own flavored water or can make a pitcher of iced tea inexpensively and sweeten it with natural sweeteners. You'll cut your grocery budget effortlessly and reduce your risk of costly chronic medical conditions such as diabetes.
15. Dining out
No list of top money wasters would be complete without dining out. Average American households spend more than $3,000 annually dining out, with some spending much more.
You don't have to give up every nice dinner at a restaurant to cut this cost significantly. Instead, be strategic about when you dine out. Instead of wasting money grabbing lunch at work each day, pack a healthy lunch from home for a fraction of the cost.
When eating out for dinner, consider going early to take advantage of happy hour specials or skipping the appetizers and avoiding beverages with big markups. Purchasing gift cards at a discount and taking advantage of coupons can also reduce costs of dining out.
16. Convenience foods
Buying convenience foods also comes at a really big cost, yet the grocery store is chock-full of pre-washed lettuce, pre-cut fruit and veggies, and other pre-prepared food products.
Unfortunately, you pay for not having to wash your own lettuce or cut up your own carrots. In fact, if you buy 20 pre-packaged salad mixes instead of heads of lettuce you'd have to wash yourself, you'd waste around $60 per year just on that one item alone.
You also pay a big premium for convenience foods if you grab snacks at vending machines at work instead of bringing in items from home.
To avoid wasted cash, buy foods in their original form and prepare them yourself. It may take an extra minute or two, but it's worth the savings. While you're preparing food, divide up big bags of snacks into individual servings to take to work so you avoid the vending machine temptation.
17. Fancy coffee
The average American spends around $1,000 per year on coffee, which amounts to about $3 per day. This is almost as much as Americans spend on commuting.
While hitting your local coffee house may seem convenient, spending this much to get your caffeine fix just isn't practical. That's especially true when you can buy yourself some nice coffee beans and make a cup at home for about $0.30 or less.
Get yourself a refillable tumbler and some coffee beans and invest that $1,000 into a retirement savings account each year for 30 years to end up with over $113,000, assuming an 8% return. Having that money to spend during retirement will leave you a lot more satisfied than having that expensive coffee every day.
18. Dry cleaning
To dry clean a pair of slacks and a button-down shirt, you're looking at an average cost of more than $10. If you spend that amount just once per week, your total dry-cleaning costs would end up being $520 per year. And that's not even factoring in dry-cleaning other costly items like coats, comforters, and formal wear.
Dry cleaning is a huge expense, and many of the chemicals used in dry cleaning could have hidden health risks.
To cut your costs, avoid buying items that need to be dry-cleaned. Hand washing at home or washing on the delicate cycle could also be a great alternative that allows you to save hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
19. Unnecessary laundry products
While doing laundry at home is far cheaper than going to the dry cleaners, many people spend far too much money on related costs.
To start, you're probably wasting money on expensive detergents when a cheaper brand would work just as well -- or you could even make your own for just pennies on the dollar. Washing in cold instead of hot won't hurt your clothes, will allow you to do fewer loads, and would allow you to save on water and electricity costs. You can also skip the fabric softener and, if possible, line dry at least some of your heavy items to reduce electricity even further.
Just changing to a cheaper detergent alone could save you more than $300 per year if you do 400 loads of laundry annually. Washing on cold would save an additional $136 and if you add line drying to your list of changes, you could cut annual costs of washing 400 loads down from about $608 per year to around $140 per year. That's a savings of almost $500.
20. Paper towels
The average family who uses two rolls of paper towels weekly spends around $182 per year and does not do the environment any favors in the process.
Instead of opting for paper towels to wipe down your kitchen and clean up spills, switch to cotton-blend shop towels you can find in automotive stores. A 10-pack will cost you less than $4, and even with regular washes, you'll spend far less to keep your house clean than you do with paper towels -- and you'll end up throwing away far less paper.
21. Phantom electricity
Look around your house and you'll see you have lots of things plugged in right now that you're not using. Your sleeping laptop, your fully-charged phone and your cable box with the clock on it are all drawing power even when you're not using them.
Phantom electricity costs around $19 billion per year just to power household items that aren't currently being used, and around one-fourth of all residential electric power is used by devices in idle mode. Your own electric bill may be around $20 to $30 more than it should be each month because of all the phantom power your devices are using.
Cutting your costs is as simple as making sure your devices are really off when you aren't using them. Power strips or SmartStrips are a great solution because you can easily and quickly turn off power to many devices with the push of a button. Unplugging devices also takes just a second and could save you hundreds each year with no big changes to your lifestyle.
22. Lottery tickets
Americans spent $73.5 billion on traditional lottery tickets and a total of $80 billion on lottery games when factoring in electronic gaming. Sadly, the odds of winning the PowerBall are around 1 in 292.2 million and your odds of winning other big prizes are around the same or worse.
While it may seem fun to take a chance and spend a few dollars with the possibility of winning big, you're far better off investing your lottery funds in something that will actually give you a return on your investment such as stocks or bonds.
And that goes for other sorts of gaming too. The only one who wins in the long-term is the house, so skip bets that won't pay off and create a solid financial plan to become rich instead.
23. Cable TV
Cable costs more than $100 monthly on average for Americans, which means that you may be spending more than $1,200 per year just to watch TV.
With so many low-cost alternatives, this expense is simply unnecessary for many households. Instead of spending a fortune for hundreds of channels you don't watch anyway, look into alternatives such as SlingTV, Hulu Live TV, or Direct TV Now. For around $10 to $40 monthly, depending which service and package you select, you can get ESPN and other sports channels as well as many local channels.If you don't need live TV, you can spend even less for Netflix or for a Hulu subscription to get access to tons of TV shows and movies commercial free.
24. Phone service
If you're still paying for a traditional landline, now might be a good time to look into alternatives that could save you around $20 to $25 monthly. Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VoIP plans, provide a low cost solution if you need a home phone as an alternative to a cell phone or as an additional phone line so you don't have to use your cell all the time.
Speaking of cell phones, you may be overpaying for your mobile phone service as well. While cell phone plans can cost well over $100 monthly for a family plan or a plan with unlimited data, you may be able to save by reducing the plan you have, switching to a pre-paid cell phone, or opting to go with a low-cost carrier such as Cricket Wireless or MetroPCS.
25. Unused memberships
The average monthly cost of a gym membership is $58 per month, but around 67% of people who have gym memberships never set foot in the gym. If you've bought a gym membership but aren't using it, you're likely throwing away more than $700 per year.
Your gym may not be the only thing you're paying for that you no longer use. You may have magazine subscriptions you don't read, clubs you no longer belong to but still pay dues for, or streaming services you aren't using any more but are still paying the bill for.
To avoid wasting cash on subscriptions and memberships that no longer provide value, go through your credit card statement to see what you're actually spending. If you see a recurring cost, ask yourself whether you really get value out of the money you're spending each month.
26. Unclaimed rebates
Around $500 million in rebates go unclaimed every single year in the United States, which is unsurprising since around 40% to 60% of rebates aren't ever redeemed.
Companies often make it hard to claim rebates, which discourages people from even trying. But, if you have a rebate on items that you've purchased and don't make the effort to get that money back, you're missing out on cash that belongs to you.
To successfully claim your rebates, make copies of all receipts and paperwork you're sending. Send in your rebates as quickly as possible to avoid missing the deadline and save both the packaging and product box in case you need more information later. Be sure to sort through your mail carefully so your rebate check doesn't get tossed out with the junk mail and call to follow up if your rebate does not come on time.
27. Impulse buying
According to a CreditCards.com survey, 5 of 6 Americans admit to buying items on a whim. These impulse purchases aren't just small items either -- more than half of survey respondents said they'd spent more than $1,000 on an impulse buy.
Impulse buys can cost you because you end up with items you don't really need and because you may buy items that are costlier or less reliable since you haven't done research before your purchase.
To avoid wasting your hard-earned cash on impulse items, make a commitment to shop only from a list and to wait 24 hours before making any big purchases. This will give you time to shop around, as well as to see if you really want the item.
Avoiding waste can help you achieve financial success
As you can see, many of the items you're wasting money on are likely costing you thousands each year. If you pick just a few items on this list to stop wasting money on and you divert that saved cash into a retirement account or another savings account, the money you're frittering away could go to work helping you achieve your financial goals and building a more secure future.