Top 5 Worst Personal Finance Mistakes

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Ever had buyer's remorse for an expensive pair of shoes you bought? These personal finance mistakes go way beyond that. These are the worst money blunders that are present in plain view.

Imagine being a slave to student loan debt for the next 20 or 30 years (or forever) because you didn't even try to find a less expensive college or choose an employable, useful college degree. If you think having a brand new sweet ride every two years, a huge house and a new iPhone is the way to spend your hard-earned money, what would happen if you lost your job? Picture yourself at the foreclosure court losing that house you've made payments on and getting nothing in return, handing over your car keys to the re-po man or ending up on the unemployment line with no cash, a baby on your hip and a long list of creditors calling your house every day. Worse yet, picture yourself 65 or 70 years old scrimping by because you never saved enough and then being told your beloved granddaughter defaulted on the loan you cosigned and now you have to pay it for the rest of your life. Scary, right?

Mainstreet polled several personal finance experts, each with a different specialty such as debt, credit, family finance and wealth-building, and found these to be some of the worst, yet most common, personal finance decisions people make. In fact, in a recent National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) poll, 80% of respondents said they make the worst decisions involving their personal finances, over marriage, health and job mistakes.

Dave Ramsay, debt-free expert and author of The Total Money Makeover, says our culture teaches us to live for the now and it can lead to these types of life-long financial mistakes.

"It's human nature to want it and want it now," he says. "And you can always get it, especially if you are willing to go into debt."

He says willingness to delay pleasure is a sign of financial maturity.

It's also a way to avoid making the biggest personal finance mistakes of your life, at any age.

20s: Too much student loan debt

"Getting into to more than $30,000 in student loan debt in a profession that pays less than six-figures a year is a huge mistake," says Ellie Kay, family finance expert and author of Lean Body, Fat Wallet.

Ramsay says we have to break the mindset that college students need student loans. He says you don't have to choose pricey private college just because you were accepted there. "You can reduce your student debt by sticking to a state college, always keeping a part-time job, keeping your GPA as high as possible - during high school and college - and the higher your SAT/ACT scores, the more scholarship money they are worth," he said.

Kay says carrying student loan debt after college limits your job and housing options for many years as most student loans are calculated on a ten-year repayment schedule. "My daughter worked hard and graduated debt-free so she had the freedom take a job in England with a non-profit that only paid for room and board and travel all over Europe - for free - for a year," she said. "If she had even $10,000 in student loans, she may not have had the freedom to do this."

30s: House poor and wanting more

Although we have seen the adjustable rate mortgage (ARM) real estate debt bubble burst in 2006, "the biggest issue we are seeing from this age group is still over-leveraging real estate debt," says Chris Kichurchak, CRPC®, vice president of Strategic Wealth Partners in Independence, OH.

"It is easy talk yourself into that more expensive loan for a bigger house because interest rates are so low," he said. "But, statistically speaking, the average mortgage is maintained for only seven years which makes it hard to build any equity while the majority of the mortgage payment is going to interest." He stresses that with such low current interest rates, avoid ARMs completely and lock in a fixed low mortgage rate for the long term.

Kay says you simply don't need your dream house in your 30s. "Many couples buy too much house and if either partner was out of work for even a month, they would be behind on their mortgage immediately," she said. Instead, get a smaller starter home, fix it up, sell it and move up gradually as you can afford it comfortably to avoid working, driving and living only for your house payment.

Instead of being house poor every month, experts agree on building and maintaining a cash emergency fund to protect your family. After that, "concentrate on maximizing funding of a 401(k) and Roth IRA with any extra income at this time in your life," advises Kichurchak.

40s: Carrying credit card debt

"Debt should be eliminated as soon as possible, so you have control of your income, your most powerful wealth-building tool," says Ramsay. "Credit card debt is simply used to obtain the 'I want its' before you can afford them." He stresses that treating your dollars recklessly, living without a budget and continuing to take on debt at this time in your life is a huge personal finance mistake.

"You can't wait until retirement age to start saving," Ramsay said. "Get rid of your debt right now so you can fund your Roth IRA or Roth 401k, take the maximum employee match on your 401k and invest in good mutual funds that have long track records."

"Credit card debt is the ultimate wealth destroyer," says John Ulzheimer, credit expert for CreditSesame.com. "Now's the time to be thinking about building a nest egg for retirement, not adding to or carrying credit card debt at 24.9% APR."

50s: Raiding retirement funds, home equity

Experts agree that withdrawing your retirement funds for any reason is always a huge personal finance mistake.

Many parents this age in post-recession America may find themselves taking on responsibilities that rightly belong to their adult children. Kay says whether it's paying off student loans, consumer debt or making house or car payments for adult kids (barring a tragedy or medical emergency), parents need to draw boundaries with their families and needed finances they've worked so hard to accumulate.

"When parents leverage the equity in their homes with a Home-Equity Line of Credit (HELOC) or raid their retirement savings in a 401(k) withdrawal to pay for their kids' college or adult expenses, they are robbing themselves of future security and they are also robbing their kids of learning the value of working their way through college or making smarter financial choices and dealing with consequences," says Kay.

"This doesn't mean that parents can't contribute cash to college expenses or help their families, but leveraging the parents future for the child's future only leads to a future where the kids have to take care of the parents in retirement," Kay added.

60s: Cosigning loans

While servicing debt of any kind at this age can be problematic, Ulzheimer thinks the worst possible thing you can do in your 60s is to cosign a student loan, car loan, mortgage loan or a credit card for anyone else. "That's because the likelihood of you having to step in and repay these loans when others default is high and you may not be in a financial position later in your life to do so," says Ulzheimer.

The Federal Trade Commission warns against cosigning any types of loans or credit and further says when you agree to cosign a loan (at any age), you're taking a risk even a lender won't take.

Think twice about what you really need to do right now, and then think of ways to just say no, whether it's to yourself, your spouse or someone else in your family. Your future you will thank you for it.

--Written by Naomi Mannino for MainStreet

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