When it comes to managing our finances, many of us are knuckleheads.
Meg Bannon, an English teacher at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, cops to it. Headed toward 30, she was lazy about budgeting. Her credit score was too low. She wasn’t making headway on her credit card debt. She barely had an emergency fund. And, of course, she had student loans. Despite working two jobs, she couldn’t seem to get ahead.
“I just felt like I was treading water,” says Bannon, now 35. “I was looking around and there were people my age who were buying houses or who had paid off their student loans and various other kind of financial milestones, and I hadn’t hit any of those.”
Bannon was overwhelmed and embarrassed by her financial muddle — but her biggest stumbling block? Just “floating along,” says Vera Kelsey-Watts, a certified financial planner at Peace of Money, an investment advisory firm based in Watertown and Newburyport.
“There’s not some larger force that is acting in your best interest to point you in the right direction,” Kelsey-Watts says. “In order for these things to work, you need to tend and pay attention to them . . . . So not making a decision is a decision in and of itself.”
Inertia is only one on a list of financial mistakes that experts say cut across all demographics, rich or poor, young or old. Blame some of it on our financial education. Americans live in the world’s wealthiest country, but are 14th in financial literacy, according to The Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services Global Financial Literacy Survey. Sixty percent of us don’t have $1,000 in savings to cover an emergency, according to a 2019 survey by Bankrate.
But money, like sex, is rooted in emotion, not just intellect. To avoid being knuckleheads, experts say we not only have to understand mechanics but our family, our culture, and our own self-destructive inclinations. Our parents may not have been good financial models or transparent about their debt and spending. And some of us come from families that have faced generations of discrimination, putting us behind from the get-go. The personal wealth gap between white and black families, for example, is actually increasing, according to the Institute for Policy Studies.
Michelle Brathwaite, regional vice president of Primerica, an insurance and financial services provider, leads a free monthly financial literacy program, Build Black Wealth, at Roxbury Community College to try and address that. “Yes, [African-Americans] have made a lot of strides; we absolutely have, but we’re still operating from a lot of damage,” she says, referencing among other things decades of discriminatory lending practices, which have made it hard for many in the black community to buy homes. Brathwaite thinks black parents want to make sure their kids don’t suffer the deprivations of earlier generations, and overspend to “make it easier” for their children. She’s aware of people buying expensive toys or throwing elaborate birthday parties rather than putting that money into a college fund, for instance. “We’re just not taught about money management,” she says.
At Jewish Vocational Service in Boston, many clients who receive financial coaching are refugees or recent immigrants, often from countries with very different financial systems than ours. They may never have used a bank or heard of a credit score, and it’s the first time many have had an opportunity to think long term, says Jason Pollens, a certified financial planner and the organization’s manager of economic opportunity. Before developing a budget, they are asked to develop a financial vision, “to think about what do they value, and what’s really important for them,” Pollens says. “What is it they want in life?”
Meanwhile, the financial system grows more complicated and less forgiving. For the vast majority of Americans, our purchasing power has been stagnant for some 40 years. We must manage our own retirement funds. There are more ways than ever to spend or get into debt. And there’s no shortage of advice — good, bad, or outrageous — from family, friends, and the media.
So how can you avoid being a financial knucklehead? We consulted a range of experts, from those who work with low-income mothers to advisers who serve only clients with more than $2 million in assets. Some admitted to their own moments of financial lunacy, such as running up credit card debt or falling for the extended warranty on the dishwasher. Their combined list of seven financial sins ranges from the emotional to the practical but offers a pathway to financial smarts.
1. Having No Clue How Much You Spend
Yes, it’s a trope that we waste money on lattes, but seriously, Americans spend an average of $2,944 annually on “financial vices” such as takeout, drinks, and lottery tickets, according to Bankrate. Pop a third of that every year into a fund averaging 5 percent returns and in 20 years you’d have more than $34,000.
At Budget Buddies, a Chelmsford-based financial mentoring service for low-income women, clients track their spending for two weeks. “This is really enlightening if you’ve never done it,” says Anita Saville, the service’s co-founder. “You realize, ‘Oh gee, look what I’m spending on coffee.’ It can be a little painful, but it’s a really good exercise.” There are lots of online tools to track spending. Once you know how much you spend, you can budget.
2. Not Using Debt to Your Advantage
Credit is a hot button right now, with gurus like Dave Ramsey urging followers to pay off all debt first, even if it means keeping only $1,000 in your emergency fund or not saving. This e-mail from him is classic Ramsey: “Debt ravages people’s lives . . . . Cut up the credit cards, create a budget, and stop trying to keep up with the Joneses — they’re broke!” Ramsey says people can qualify for a mortgage or rent an apartment without any credit score at all. But being marked as a trustworthy borrower is important even if you don’t plan to take out a loan, other experts say. Potential landlords and employers often check credit scores.
Kelsey-Watts argues that while focusing only on debt is a thrill, it’s not necessarily prudent. Saving while you make regular debt payments allows you to build your credit score and create an emergency fund large enough to actually cover the cat’s surgery, she says. “The idea of putting 100 percent of your focus on your debt feels better to people,” she says, but it may not be the most effective way to meet financial goals.
3. Spending or Borrowing Just Because You Can
You may qualify for a certain amount on a new credit card or a mortgage, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Let’s talk school loans, for instance. Going to a prestigious school just because you can borrow the money is nuts, several experts say. “There’s lots of peer pressure — not just for the student but also for the parent — to have the students go to the best school they can get into, even if it costs a lot. That isn’t always a great decision,” says Adam Minsky, a Boston consumer rights attorney who specializes in student loans. The average monthly student loan payment is $393, according to the Federal Reserve. And asking an 18-year-old, or even their parents, to understand the incredibly convoluted college loan system is unrealistic, Minsky says. “There’s lots of traps and there’s lots of ways that well-intentioned people can get into trouble,” he says. Loan forbearance — the one-time option to temporarily reduce or stop making payments — might seem attractive, especially for someone just starting a job, but it means you’re no longer paying off the loan, and may even delay you from qualifying for loan-forgiveness programs that would save money in the long run.
4. Not Planning Ahead — Way Ahead
It’s always easier to think short term, but this could lead to a lot of missteps, such as skimping on the tax account or contributing the bare minimum to your 401(k) or not saving for the kids’ college funds.
And then there’s estate planning, which, yes, you should consider even if you are young and not a millionaire. Even Bad with Money podcast host Gaby Dunn, at 31 barely into her 30s, advocates for some kind of planning. “You might not have a lot, but everyone has assets,” she says. “I’ve made it clear who gets the dog. I’ve made it clear I want my organs donated.”
If you’re a resident of the Commonwealth, you will owe taxes if you have assets in your name over $1 million, says Alisa Kim O’Neil, an attorney and director of estate and financial planning for Boston Financial Management. A healthy retirement fund and a house in the Boston suburbs could push you over that limit in a heartbeat. Estate planning can maximize what you leave your heirs and should also include a health care proxy, a durable power of attorney, and details such as who gets guardianship of your children. Review the plan yearly, O’Neil says. “It’s kind of like a checklist, like an annual physical.”
5. Going Along With What Your Friends Do
Money is like dieting: One system does not work for everyone. Don’t use a budgeting app just because your friend uses it. Don’t buy a house just because your peers are. Don’t assume the strategy that worked for your uncle will help you, too. Clients are sometimes “bewildered” when they get different results from the same financial advice that their friend followed successfully, Kelsey-Watts says. “It’s very hard to translate advice, or what one person might be doing as being applicable for a second person,” she says.
Your financial institutions should meet your needs, not their own. The default investment options in your 401(k), for example, might be automatic but not the best for your situation, Kelsey-Watts notes.
6. Letting Love Rule Your Wallet
Dunn this year published a Bad with Money book, in which she offers a list of “Things I Have Bought For People Who Are About To Dump Me.” On the list was a $400 watch and a designer winter coat. “When you’re first dating someone, you’re just blowing through money, you want to seem cool, but then you don’t talk about if you can afford that,” says Dunn, a graduate of Emerson College. “Money can’t make the person love you.”
Don’t let the stars in your eyes blind you to the risks of cosigning loans or credit cards — the obligation may outlast the relationship. Worse, some relationships turn financially abusive when one partner uses money as power or leverage.
If you’re in a healthy relationship, own your financial responsibility, says O’Neil. She tries not to allow a partner or spouse to remain ignorant about family finances. Too often, she says, a woman relies on her husband to make decisions, and if he dies shifts her reliance to an adult child. “It may not be the most interesting thing in the world,” she says, “but educate yourself on it.”
7. Refusing to Ask for Help
This brings us back to our Cambridge teacher, Meg Bannon. A few years ago she got fed up with feeling like she was making no financial headway. “What I was doing wasn’t working, and I didn’t know enough to figure out how to make it work on my own,” she says.
She Googled around and found Kelsey-Watts, who works with her on an hourly basis (expect services to charge $175 to $350 an hour, and 8-10 hours your first year). Bannon still works two jobs — teaching at both Rindge and Latin and Bunker Hill Community College — taking home about $65,000 a year. And she still has about $28,000 in school loans. But what she pays Kelsey-Watts annually has paid off. She refinanced her school loans, switched to a credit union without fees, and moved her credit-card debt to a card with an extended interest-free period, allowing her to pay down the principal. She now saves money in virtual “buckets” for her emergency fund, gym memberships, house, and travel. Her credit score has gone up 75 points, putting her comfortably above 700, a strong score.
“It’s crazy how much of a difference [the coaching has] made,” she says. “Just knowing I can’t just go buy a plane ticket whenever I want because I need to wait one more pay period to get that extra $200 in my account [to pay for the purchase in full].”
No matter where you find help, make sure the advice is specific to you and understand how your financial adviser is being compensated. Be wary of commission-based advice. As Kelsey-Watts says, “My job is part therapeutic. It’s part life coaching. It’s part financial planning because this is ultimately a plan that has to be something that is doable.”
Susan Moeller is a writer and editor who lives on Cape Cod. Send comments to magazine @globe.com.