It's Never Too Late to Fix These 5 Money Mistakes From Your Past

By Emily Guy Birken on 31 March 2017 0 comments

Making mistakes is part of life, and this is particularly true when it comes to finance. Since money is such a taboo topic in our culture, we often have to learn good money behavior through trial and error.

The problem is that our culture also considers errors as something to regret, rather than opportunities to learn. This can land us in a shame-filled cycle of inaction.

Forgiving yourself for financial mistakes is not the same as condoning or ignoring them. It's simply giving yourself the opportunity to move on from the past. Stop beating yourself up over these common youthful money mistakes and take action to fix them instead.

1. Taking on too much student debt

Taking out a student loan has become the default method for the majority of college students to pay for their education. According to a 2016 Market Watch report, "about 40 million Americans hold student loans and about 70 percent of bachelor's degree recipients graduate with debt."

With the near ubiquity of student loans, however, comes the problem of students taking on more debt than they need or can comfortably pay off once they graduate. Student loans can feel like an easy way to pay for more school than you can afford, or even a way to fund things you don't really need, like your own apartment or spring break vacations.

This can be exacerbated by the fact that college students and their parents don't always completely understand the differences between types of student loans, which can leave them all the more susceptible to overwhelming debt.

How to fix it

If you are kicking yourself for running up a student loan tab that you can't afford, start your journey to self-forgiveness by investigating your repayment options. The first step is to call your lender and explain the situation. If you have federal student loans, you may be eligible for a modification of your repayment plan based on your income. Even if you have private loans, talking with your lender can let you know what options are available that will give you more breathing room.

Once you have made whatever changes you can to your repayment plan, then take the time to write down everything you got for the money you borrowed. For instance, in addition to your education, you might list the friends and connections you made at college, the experiences you had, the insights you gained about yourself and your area of study, and the way the loans allowed you to focus on college instead of tuition.

This exercise will give you a chance to feel gratitude for the loans. You are now the beneficiary of your younger self's choices — both the good and the bad. Recognizing all of the benefits you got from your student loans will help you move from being angry at yourself, to looking at your current loan payments as a gift to your younger self.

2. Not budgeting or building an emergency fund

I don't know a single person who did not immediately begin spending money hand over fist after landing their first well-paid job. That means anything from immediately purchasing an expensive car to relying on restaurants for meals rather than cooking. Even people who carefully budget their money when working for low salaries have a tendency to start making it rain as soon as their paychecks get bigger.

This can cause problems in two ways. Sometimes, the good salary doesn't last forever because of a layoff or other change in your financial circumstances. And sometimes, you keep making good money, but your lifestyle continues to inflate — which means you can never seem to get ahead.

In either case, the lack of a budget and an emergency fund means that a financial blow can turn into a crisis, leaving you cursing yourself for every unnecessary purchase you made when the money was good.

How to fix it

Budgeting may be the last thing on your mind when the lack of money hits the fan, but creating a budget is exactly what you need to do in an emergency. Don't waste your time beating yourself up for the spending choices you made before the financial crisis — just sit down with your bank statements, credit card accounts, and bills, and figure out your income and outflow. Learning to budget in the middle of a crisis might be painful, but it will ultimately help you feel in control of your money.

Once you have a budget system in place, it's time to start looking back on your spending habits. What did you buy that you now regret? Why do you regret it? Do you feel regret now only because an emergency came up and you didn't have the funds, or do you actually feel the purchase itself added nothing to your life? If you truly regret the purchase, why did you make it?

It can hurt to ask yourself these questions, which is why it is important to regard your past purchases with curiosity and compassion, rather than guilt or anger at yourself. But once you have answered these questions, you will have a better understanding of why you made those unnecessary purchases — which will help you avoid the same spending traps in the future. Understanding the reasons behind your bad money habits can help you develop financial mindfulness to make better choices going forward.

3. Not saving for retirement

Most people don't think to start putting money aside for retirement when they are young. In your 20s and 30s, not only does retirement seem too far away to worry about, but you've got plenty of competing needs that seem more important.

Of course, if you read any advice on retirement, it's clear that saving as much money as you can when you are young is the best route to a secure retirement. Unfortunately, this advice can feel like it's meant to shame anyone who didn't start funding their 401(k) on the day they started their first job. That's not helpful to late funders.

How to fix it

When it comes to retirement, we should all save early and save often. Unfortunately, financial advice tends to beat the "save early" drum so much that it's easy to believe that there is such a thing as "too old to start saving for retirement." But as long as you are bringing in an income, you can save for your retirement. Write down your future goals and your vision of retirement, so you can get excited about saving. Then you can let go of the anger at your younger self, and start putting money in your retirement accounts today, tomorrow, and beyond. (See also: 7 Retirement Planning Steps Late Starters Must Make)

4. Racking up credit card debt

I got my first credit card in college. Though I tried to pay off the bill every month, it got away from me pretty quickly. Sometime in my senior year of college, when I realized that there was no way I could pay off my bill, I made the decision to just let the debt rack up, since I'd have a good-paying job after graduation and could take care of it then.

Of course, after I graduated, I was unable to find a job for about three months, and the first job I did land was working retail for $8.25 an hour. My credit card debt crept up even more.

My youthful problems with credit card debt are incredibly common. When you get your first sweet taste of credit, it's pretty hard to stop using the plastic even when your budget can't handle your charges. The fact that you're not required to pay off the cringe-inducing full amount allows you to assume the problem will take care of itself, as I did.

Then, one day, you realize that you are in debt up to your eyeballs with nothing to show for it, and you are kicking yourself for your youthful credit card spending.

How to fix it

Start by recognizing the fact that humans are not wired to be able to handle the combination of instant gratification plus delayed payment. Young adults are particularly susceptible to this, which is the very reason why credit card companies have been banned from college campuses.

Once you recognize this, it becomes much easier to start digging yourself out of the hole. You can much more easily leave your credit cards at home and remove them from your favorite e-tailer sites when you realize the cost of their convenience. Sending extra money to your credit card each month also starts feeling like steps toward freedom. (See also: 5 Ways to Pay Off High Interest Credit Card Debt)

5. Buying too much car

Buying a new car for yourself can be one of the most satisfying moments in young adulthood. You can finally choose the car you want to drive, rather than making do with a beater or your parents' minivan. So it's very easy to go hog-wild when you're in a position to buy a new car. You can get the horsepower, or the luxury, or the bells-and-whistles you've always dreamed of having.

But the monthly payments end up being a bigger deal than they seemed when you were in the showroom, and your high-end car keeps needing expensive maintenance and insurance. When you realize how much you could have saved if you opted for that reliable low-key sedan instead, you want to kick your younger, flashy self.

How to fix it

Once you have forgiven yourself for putting too much emphasis (and money) on your car, you can start thinking more rationally about your transportation needs. If your vehicle is just a means to get from point A to point B, then what do you really need from it? What's the minimum that would be acceptable for your transportation?

Going through this thought exercise allows you to think about what you really need, and will help you do the research necessary to find the right car for your life. Then you can trade in your too-much car for something more appropriate, or drive something that meets your barest of needs until you have paid off the mistake of buying too much car.

And don't forget — you can always put some racing stripes on “Old Reliable” if you want it to represent you. Loving your car doesn't have to be expensive.

Let it go

Feeling shame over things you did in the past is a way of letting your mistakes continue to hurt you. Yes, you may have screwed up when you were younger and it might be hurting your bottom line right now. But you give that old mistake far more power over your future if you continue to beat yourself up for it instead of simply accepting it and doing what you can to bounce back from it. Step out of regret and into action today.

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