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It’s important to build good savings habits as early in life as possible, but there are certain mistakes to be mindful of at every age. Healthy money management over the decades can help minimize regrets as you approach your golden years.
Money-related regrets are quite common, in fact. Nearly 1 in 5 people regret not saving early for retirement, according to a new Bankrate survey, which also found that having too much credit card debt and not saving enough for emergencies are sources of regret for 15 percent and 14 percent of respondents, respectively.
Whether your regrets involve student loan debt, a large mortgage or not having enough in a savings account, it’s not too late to turn things around. Here are some common money-saving mistakes to avoid at every age.
Key barriers to savings
- Nearly one-third (31 percent) of people feel you should start paying for your student loans between the ages of 22 and 25. (Bankrate’s 2023 financial independence survey)
- Almost half (43 percent) of U.S. adults with children ages 18 or older say they sacrifice their retirement savings to help those adult children, while 51 percent report sacrificing emergency savings and 49 percent are sacrificing paying down debt. (Bankrate’s 2023 financial independence survey)
- Money matters that negatively impact mental health, according to survey respondents, include not having adequate emergency savings (56 percent), being in debt (47 percent) and being unprepared for retirement (39 percent). (Bankrate’s 2023 financial wellness survey)
- More than one-third of people have less emergency savings than they did one year ago. (Bankrate’s 2023 emergency savings report)
- Increasing emergency savings while paying down debt is a priority for 34 percent of people. (Bankrate’s 2023 emergency savings report)
Savings mistakes to avoid for 20-somethings
Graduating from college and dealing with student loan debt can make you feel like you have barely enough to make ends meet, let alone stash money away. In fact, 21 percent of Gen Z members said not saving enough for emergency expenses is their biggest financial regret, according to Bankrate’s financial regrets survey.
Building an emergency fund is crucial at this stage. Putting a little bit of money away into a savings account on a regular basis will really add up — even if you’re only adding $5 or $10 from each paycheck. It can be easy to get bogged down by all the bills you’re responsible for right now, but looking at your savings deposits as part of your monthly expenses will help you later.
Instead of saving in a regular savings account, look into high-yield savings accounts. These pay a higher annual percentage yield (APY) than traditional savings accounts. Try to find accounts that charge no fees. Online banks are known for offering accounts that pay high yields, without fees or minimum balance requirements.
You also want to look as far ahead as retirement — saving for retirement right now will help you later. Those seeking their first full-time job after college would do well to research what any prospective employer’s retirement benefits are like. Check if a 401(k) plan or similar retirement plan is offered, and if the employer matches any employee contributions. If such employer plans aren’t an option, look into setting up an IRA.
Savings mistakes to avoid for 30-somethings
Biggest financial regrets among millennials include not having enough emergency savings (17 percent) and taking on too much credit card debt (16 percent), Bankrate’s financial regrets survey found.
In your 30s, your job might be a little more stable and your income might be a bit more substantial than it was a decade ago. Your goals might be different, too. Maybe you want to buy a home or expand your family.
Because your financial and family situations are likely different now, your savings situation should change, too. If you’re no longer the only person you have to look out for financially, you need to understand how to manage your expenses.
It might be hard to factor in the added cost of a child, but it’s possible once you budget for it. Restructuring your budget is important for any major change in your life, so research those expenses and crunch the numbers beforehand so you’re not caught off guard.
If children aren’t in your plans but buying a home or getting married are, you should still create a budget.
Whether it’s a wedding, a house, a big trip or college for your kids, each of these goals has a different amount needed and a different time horizon. Decide which of these goals is most important to you and how much you have to save each month to achieve them.
— Nick Holeman, CFPSenior Financial Planner at Betterment
When it comes to student loan debt, 25 percent of millennials owe money on a student loan, while 20 percent said they had such debt but paid it off, Bankrate’s financial regrets survey found. For 30-somethings, the impact of lingering debt often becomes more apparent as larger life expenses arise, such as a mortgage or having a child.
Savings mistakes to avoid for 40-somethings
Retirement feels closer than it did a few years ago. By now, you may have a solid hold on your budget. You’re trying to save but actually might not be doing as well as you think you are.
“Your 40s are when your financial responsibilities become palpable,” Holeman says. “One of the biggest mistakes people in their 40s make is not countering ‘lifestyle creep.’”
Focusing more on savings can help you retire earlier and pay off any debts sooner. In fact, saving enough for retirement and taking on too much credit card debt are the biggest financial regrets for 26 percent and 18 percent of Gen Xers, respectively, Bankrate’s financial regrets survey found.
What’s more, some Gen Xers have not yet eliminated their student loan debt. While more than one-quarter (27 percent) previously had such debt but no longer owe anything, 14 percent still have it, according to the financial regrets survey.
While the finances of many 40-somethings are being impacted by teenage and adult children — as well as caring for aging parents — it’s still important to focus on keeping one’s retirement savings on track and paying down balances on mortgages and student loan debt.
In fact, of Gen Xers with children age 18 or older, helping these children financially has resulted in these sacrifices, based on the financial regrets survey:
- 60 percent say they sacrifice reaching a financial milestone.
- 57 percent sacrifice emergency savings.
- 55 percent say they sacrifice paying down debt.
- 51 percent sacrifice retirement savings.
Savings mistakes to avoid for 50-somethings
Like many 40-somethings, most 50-somethings also belong to Generation X and share some of the same life experiences, including paying for children’s education and caring for aging parents.
If you have children on their way out of college, do they know how to handle the financial responsibilities of adulthood?
Take the time to have a serious discussion with (your kids) about what they plan to do after graduation. It’s great to help out your children, but you’ll want to make sure you’re not jeopardizing your own security.
— Nick Holeman, CFPSenior Financial Planner at Betterment
That means you don’t want to delay your own retirement by helping your children start their own lives after school. Set clear rules and expectations. Continue to put as much away for retirement as possible. And use any extra money to make catch-up contributions to your accounts.
Holeman also suggests having the difficult but necessary conversation about estate planning.
“Estate plans provide a road map for important decisions regarding your health and assets, and generally cover two phases: before and after your death,” Holeman says. “By having one in place, you’ll remove any ambiguity around your wishes when it comes to protecting your family, loved ones and assets, in case you’re unable to do so.”
Savings mistakes to avoid for 60-somethings and beyond
More than one-third (34 percent) of baby boomers say their biggest financial regret was not saving enough for retirement, and 4 percent still even have student loan debt, Bankrate’s financial regrets survey found.
Your best working years are behind you, but that doesn’t mean you need to stop working. But you should still plan ahead.
“At this age, the biggest mistake is underestimating your needs,” Holeman says.
Those needs won’t be what they were 10 or 20 years ago. You may be facing rising healthcare costs as well as considering downsizing your living space. Evaluating how you’re living or planning to live will impact your savings.
“In order to make sure your bases are covered, budget for the ‘boulders’ in your life — the large or recurring items you prepare for monthly, such as your rent, mortgage or car payment,” Holeman says. “Once that’s done, monitor your personal checking account for how much is safe to spend until the next month.”
At this stage in life when your income is more fixed or even reduced, it’s important to watch your budget closely, save for unexpected expenses and cut back on spending. Enjoy your leisure time, but make sure activities are within your budget.
Many retirees fear outliving their money, due to healthcare costs and getting by on a fixed income. Following a careful budget and living within your means can help keep your retirement savings from becoming depleted.
When setting up a retirement budget and considering what you’ll need in terms of income, first factor in any Social Security payments you’re receiving. From there, work backward to determine how much additional money you’ll need each month from your 401(k) or IRA account. Read up on retirement withdrawal strategies that can help you make the most of what you have saved.
No matter what decade of life you’re in, it’s never too early or late to brush up on your money management skills to ensure a comfortable financial future and avoid running into regrets. Careful budgeting can free up dollars for things like investing and increasing your savings. When you have credit card debt or student loan debt, don’t forget to also make debt repayment a priority in your budget.
Whether your goals include paying off your mortgage, funding your children’s education or retiring comfortably, every decade of your life counts significantly toward these aspirations — and your future self will thank you for your careful money management now.
— Writer Dori Zinn contributed to a previous version of this story.