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Big Mistakes That Cost, Part 2

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Focusing on small spending habit changes is a good way to save significant money over the long term. No matter how many daily lattes you forgo, if you make poor spending decisions on major expenditures, all your ECRD savings could be negated in one moment. Consumer Reports has identified some of these major mistakes that, while common, could cost thousands of dollars unnecessarily. Earlier, I wrote about six such mistakes. Here are six more.

7. Maintaining an unhealthy lifestyle. Living healthy, including an acceptable body weight, low cholesterol, normal blood pressure, and no smoking, can reduce your expenses by $4,600 to $42,000 throughout your life. These savings come from reduced life insurance premiums for healthy individuals. Consumer Reports offers this advice:

Before you apply for life insurance, consult a doctor about the best ways to get your stats in line with the “preferred plus” underwriting requirements. Insurers are OK with you taking medications to achieve normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

I’m surprised Consumer Reports’ analysis stops at life insurance. There are many ways healthy individuals spend less than unhealthy. First of all, smoking is an expensive habit. Cigarettes are expensive and the health problems smokers will likely have to deal with will be financially difficult depending on the severity of the problem. Quitting smoking is one of the best things someone can do to save money, not just from the expensive cigarettes but from increasing health care costs. In general, unhealthy people visit the doctor more and perhaps require medication. While health insurance covers some expense, staying healthy is a much better choice.

Personally, I can do much better in this category by exercising and having at least annual check-ups with my doctor. I’ve tested my blood pressure recently, and that seems to be fine. I do not know where my cholesterol stands, and I could stand to lose a few pounds.

8. Ignoring Roth accounts. Roth IRAs and 401(k)s allow earners to set aside money for retirement while allowing that money to grow tax free. If withdrawn when allowed, and if the law does not change by then, earnings will be tax free as well. Roth accounts are excellent options for those who believe their tax rate now will be lower than their tax rate at retirement. I don’t think anyone’s guess is better than anyone else’s regarding future tax rates, so my approach is to diversify my tax exposure.

Consumer Reports estimates that ignoring the Roth option could cost $9,000 to $26,000.

9. Cashing out your 401(k). This figure surprises me. Consumer Reports mentions that 45% of workers cash out their 401(k) when they change jobs. I can only think of one situation in which this makes sense, and even then it’s sketchy. If someone finds himself out of a job unexpectedly after being fired or laid off, does not have any access to emergency funds, and cannot find a job immediately, I can understanding tapping into a 401(k). There are huge penalties for doing this, and I think it’s a bad option. Always be prepared for job loss by following these five suggestions, and you won’t have to worry about where your money will come from if you find yourself unemployed.

10. Underfunding your 401(k). One of the most common pieces of financial advice doles out by professionals is to maximize your 401(k) contributions to the IRS limit (after funding your emergency fund, meeting the requirements for your company’s matching contribution, and maximizing a Roth IRA). This is a somewhat difficult goal for many people. If you are single and earning $40,000 in New Jersey for example, and you have to pay for an apartment or a house, you’re going to find it difficult to pay all of your bills while diverting $15,500 to retirement. I only recenntly bumped my 401(k) contributions high enough to max out my 401(k), and I could only do so thanks to outside income.

Consumer Reports calculates that an average worker not contributing fully to a 401(k) would give up $36,000 in savings compared to one who does fully contribute.

11. Paying needless fund fees. Several years ago, when I first started investing, I set up a recurring purchase of a fund I had already owned through a UGMA account. I thought recurring purchases in AIVSX would help my portfolio grow. It turns out the fund did well when the market did well, but my purchase price did not seem to line up with the price of the fund on the purchase dates. The price I was buying the fund at was about 5% higher than the fund’s actual price. I later realized that I was paying a 5% premium each time I purchased the fund because it was a “load fund.” This load reduced my performance to below the market benchmark. Once I realized, I stopped purchasing the fund every two weeks. It was a waste of money and a lesson learned.

I could have easily found a no-load fund in which to invest. If I had continued with AIVSX, I might have wasted $4,000 over the course of my investment.

The high-cost fund that we chose had a 5.25 percent load and annual expenses totaling 0.45 percent. The low-cost fund was a no-load with annual costs of only 0.18 percent. The high-cost fund grew to $36,000, the low-cost one to $40,000. Note that we could have chosen a fund with even higher expenses, had we not done our comparison with index funds.

The magazine recommends Fidelity, T. Rowe Price, and Vanguard. I have accounts with Fidelity and Vanguard, and so far, I would have no problem recommending either of these companies. Both have low-cost, no-load index funds perfect for frugal investing.

12. Falling for a scam. Anyone can fall for a scam, even otherwise intelligent people. Professional con artists are good at what they do, and they continue to exist because the scams work often enough to make it worthwhile. Consumer Reports can’t even estimate how much someone could lose on a scam; it can be a family’s entire savings.

Always check out the license, reputation, and references of any company or individual you’re thinking of doing business with. Never respond to an unsolicited request for personal information, such as your Social Security number or online passwords, even if it appears to come from a business you know. Instead, call the company yourself. Be especially wary if you’re nearing or in retirement, a prime age group targeted by fraudsters because, as the bank robber Willie Sutton once said of his own favorite crime target, that’s where the money is.

On a smaller scale, sometimes gainfully employed professionals can commit what amounts to a scam. It pays to know all the details about any financial arrangement you agree to, whether it’s a car loan or a variable annuity. Many professionals are not required to act in their customers’ best interest, and what’s good for the salesman is not always good for the customer. If you are unsure, it’s best to wait before making a decision or bring someone knowledgeable and trusted with you. Last year, I wrote about an elderly person who was sold a variable annuity by Bank of America without really understanding the details. It’s likely she wouldn’t see any benefit from the product before she would pass away. It’s hard to always know who to blame, as there is often miscommunication, misunderstanding, and in some cases, misleading before the contract is signed.

12 money mistakes that could cost you $1,000,000 [Consumer Reports]

Updated February 6, 2012 and originally published February 18, 2008. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

avatar Jesse

Everytime I hear someone mention cashing out their 401k I die a little bit inside…though I think the most overlooked one is the Roth IRA. I would bet good money on taxes being higher in the future, not to mention myself being in a higher tax bracket…yet I know very few people with Roth IRA’s setup.

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