While some consumers are experts when it comes staying within the streamlined family budget through comparison shopping, haggling, negotiating, coupon-clipping and making necessary cuts, some of us are—ahem—a bit lazy. Here’s where we’re coming up short and what you can do about it:
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Failing to set financial goals
Many consumers are leading a “spend as you go lifestyle,” which is not productive. The bottom line is that we are much more inclined to save when we’re saving for something specific, whether a home, or college tuition, for example. Write down your short and long-term goals (where do you want to be in five years or ten?) and have a plan to meet those goals.
I’m talking largely about paying bills late. What you may not know is that when you pay your bills late, you’re not only faced with late fees (which could easily exceed your minimum payment on your credit card), but higher interest rates and credit score consequences, which affects your ability to buy a home, a car, or even get a job. Get it together: have a designated place for bills, and set aside a time to pay them, or arrange to have them paid automatically.
Ignoring your credit score
Your credit report has a huge impact on what you can do, financially. Ideally, you should check it – from each of the three credit reporting agencies—once a year. Go to annualcreditreport.com; it’s free. Why should you bother if you’re not taking out a loan anytime soon? It’s important to identify potential problems, such as unauthorized charges/fraudulent behavior, and inaccuracies. After all, error rates range from about 3 percent to 25 percent (and some studies put that figure as high as 80 percent). (See 50 Ways to Improve Your Finances in 2011.)
It’s amazing that we’re spending twice as much time researching a car purchase as we are a home loan, particularly since a home is the single biggest investment people make. Try the new Zillow Mortgage Marketplace iPhone App. It makes it easy since you can shop for quotes—anonymously—and even contact the lender right from your phone—while out touring homes.
Letting bad habits slide
The numbers don’t lie: two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The costs over a lifetime? Nearly $260,000. As for smoking—another killer —a pack a day habit costs about $4,000 a year. Smoking also significantly increases your insurance costs, from life insurance (expect to pay about three times as much as a non-smoker) to homeowners (non-smokers typically get a 10 percent discount on their premiums), auto (non-smokers generally get a 5 percent discount), down to your health insurance. Run the numbers on ehealthinsurance.com and you’ll see: smokers pay several hundred dollars more per year than non-smokers.
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Relying on the government—or an employer—for financial security
This is a big no-no, particularly with promised benefits like Social Security and Medicare headed for bankruptcy. The reality is that we’re going to have to work much longer, and retire on much less—or both. In an environment like this, you’ve got to take the initiative and be captain of your own financial ship.
Waiting for a miracle
A lot of Americans are waiting for something miraculous that will bail them out of their predicament. Why do you think so many of us play the lottery? Many of us think this our best chance for improving our financial situation. What’s particularly disturbing is that those earning an annual $13,000 or less spend a whopping 9 percent of their income on lottery tickets. Any idea what the odds are of striking it rich? As slim as one in 195 million.