If you read their books or listen to them on TV, you might be inclined to think that financial pros never make a financial blunder, that they’ve never bought a bum stock, run up credit card debt or made a bad real estate deal.
But the fact is even the best money minds haven’t always made all the right moves. We asked six experts to fess up about their biggest financial blunders, and what we all can learn from them.
Financial claim to fame: Best-selling author of “The Difference: How Anyone Can Prosper in Even the Toughest Times,” financial editor of NBC’s “Today” show and host of a daily show on Oprah Radio.
Big money mistake: Years ago, Chatzky racked up $6,000 in credit card charges at a brutal 18 percent APR. At the time, the sum represented about six months’ salary, she says. Despite the debt, she was diligently stashing money into her savings account, which earned a paltry 3 percent rate. Even though she had more than enough in her savings to cover the full amount of the debt, there was a psychological component to her poor financial decision.
“I felt safer with the money in the bank,” she says.
How she changed: Chatzky finally did the math and paid off her debt with savings.
“I basically wiped out the emergency cushion to pay off the credit card debt,” she says. “But I knew if I had an emergency and needed to buy a plane ticket for a flight home to see my parents, for example, that I would still be able to put it on my credit card.”
Lesson learned: Don’t let savings goals interfere with paying off credit card debt. With credit card companies slashing credit lines, she says she might be a bit more conservative today than she was back then, perhaps leaving enough in savings to cover a month’s rent. But the general advice still holds.
“It really doesn’t make sense to keep money in savings while you’re paying money on high-rate credit card debt,” she says.
Financial claim to fame: Author of “I Will Teach You to Be Rich” and blogger of a site by the same name.
Big money mistake: When Sethi was a high school student, he earned plenty of college scholarships, including a $2,000 scholarship that arrived as a check made out in his name, instead of the school’s. Sethi immediately came up with a plan.
“I took the money and invested in the stock market,” he says. He invested in any company he thought might get hot, but his picks were anything but.
“I lost half the money almost immediately,” he says.
How he changed: The quick, dramatic loss made him change his entire approach to his finances. “I realized that I had no plan and no context for what I was doing,” he says. “If I had spent even two hours reading one personal finance book, I would have learned a lot.”
The loss prompted him to spend a year of learning about money from books, magazines and TV shows. He also began studying the way that psychology affects how we spend, save and invest. Instead of gambling his money on individual stocks, he focused on the many less risky ways of improving his bottom line, from automating his savings to negotiating his fees.
Lesson learned: Understand risk and reward. There are a lot of ways to end up with more money in your bank account without gambling your cash on individual stocks.
Financial claim to fame: Host of the “Dave Ramsey Show” and author of “The Total Money Makeover.”
Big money mistake: Ramsey jokes that when it comes to his personal finances, he’s “done stupid with zeros on the end.” When he was in his 20s, he started buying and flipping real estate.
“I was making crazy money, and by the time I was 26, I had acquired more than a million dollars worth of property,” he says. “The problem was that most of it was in the form of a short-term note. One of the local banks that held one of my notes was bought out and decided to call in my note (requiring full payment). Other banks started catching on, and over the course of two-and-a-half years, (my wife and I) lost everything we had. We were sued, foreclosed upon and, ultimately, went bankrupt.”
How he changed: Bankruptcy changed Ramsey’s entire mindset. “I swore off debt,” he says. “My wife and I don’t buy anything unless we can pay cash for it.”
Lesson learned: Leave the real estate flipping to the pros or the wealthy, and live within your means.
“Real estate is a great investment if you have the cash to buy it,” he says. “I’m not against a mortgage for your primary residence. But if you plan to buy a second home or just buy and flip properties, you need to use cash. I had leveraged too much of my portfolio and the house of cards I built came crashing down.”
Financial claim to fame: Co-author of “Your Money or Your Life” and Yourmoneyoryourlife.info.
Big money mistake: Robin had always been a renter. But when a friend who shared her basic values of independence, professionalism and sustainability suggested that the two go in on a house together, she jumped at the chance.
“It seemed like a slam-dunk,” she says. “We’d each put in half. We had big visions for this place, and we seemed to totally align.” Except that they didn’t. Despite their many shared values, the way they planned to spend money on the house wasn’t identical.
“She thought, well, we’re going to share everything, and she started making big decisions for her area that she thought I was going to pay for,” she says. “We were a couple of people who had been empowered and successful. We made our own decisions. But we were bumping into having to check in with somebody else about what to do regarding money.”
How she changed: Smart, detailed communication turned out to be the key. “We were just making our own private assumption,” she says. “But now we’ve established a shared agreement about what’s mine, what’s thine and what’s ours,” she says.
Lesson learned: In any financial partnership, whether it’s your spouse or a business partner, be willing to talk about every last detail before making a commitment.
“We had had conversations (about money), and we both talked about what our values were. But we didn’t hear what the other person was saying,” Robin says. “Too often people’s values are aligned, but their strategies for enacting their values are different.”
Financial claim to fame: Host of the Money Guy blog and podcast, and a certified public accountant, Certified Financial Planner and personal financial specialist at Preston and Cleveland Wealth Management LLC in McDonough, Ga.
Big money mistake: Preston graduated from college in the mid-’90s, when the Internet was changing the world. He was convinced he could ride the boom and make some serious cash, so he took $2,000 and looked for the sure winners.
“I decided that it would be a great idea to invest in several Internet mutual funds,” he says. “I doubled my money within six months and thought I was a financial genius.” He topped out at $6,000, but then slid back when the bubble burst. He didn’t get out until his original investment had dwindled to a measly $400.
How he changed: Preston returned to personal finance fundamentals — a view he preaches on his twice-monthly podcast. “A low-cost, broadly diversified portfolio is much more consistent in performance, and it allows you to sleep better at night,” Preston says.
Lesson learned: Nobody can foretell the future, and today’s top stocks are often tomorrow’s dustbin liner. “I have learned that chasing sectors and the current hot investment trend is not a fruitful endeavor,” he says.
Financial claim to fame: Author of “The Little Book of Main Street Money” and former Wall Street Journal columnist.
Big money mistake: Years ago, Clements got an $8,000 windfall when his father liquidated a life insurance policy, and he decided to try his hand at stock-picking. He chose four. Two did well, one broke even and one was nothing short of disaster.
“It seemed like a clever investment,” he says of that last stock. “The company was a cinema operator that had also amassed a series of investments, many of them in Internet companies. A little math indicated that, on a per-share basis, this investment portfolio was equal to the parent company’s stock price, which meant you were effectively getting the cinema operation for free.”
His brilliant strategy proved to be less intelligent than he thought. The stock’s value plunged by 90 percent when the tech bubble burst, and the cinema operation didn’t fare much better. “A year after I bought the share, I bit the bullet and took my tax loss,” he says.
How he changed: Clements is done with cherry-picking stocks. “I haven’t bought an individual stock since then,” he notes.
Lesson learned: “Be leery of excessive self-confidence,” he says. “We all like to think that we’re smarter and more knowledgeable than others. But it’s awfully tough to outsmart the market.”