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06/11/2016 04:39 pm ET

6 Money Mistakes Everyone Makes

If your recognize any of these common behaviors, it's time to get your finances on the right track.
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You know that going to your doctor for regular checkups is important for your physical health, but have you run tests lately on your financial health? You don’t want to wait until you’re having money troubles to seek help. In fact, there may be things you’re doing now that seem like no big deal, but could seriously derail your finances.  We spoke to top financial planners about the six money red flags that may surprise you, and how to get back on track.

#1: You’re only focused on the big number

When you think about retiring, you probably have a certain number in mind in terms of how much money you’ll need to save before you can quit your job. While it’s good to have a specific goal, it can also get you into trouble. “People aren’t very good with big numbers,” says Spencer Betts, a financial planner at Bickling Financial Services in Lexington, MA. “They think, once I have a million bucks I can retire on that. But the mistake is not looking at your personal circumstances—a million dollars may not be enough to retire on.” If, for instance, you plan to move to an area that has a higher cost of living, such as along the coasts, your everyday expenses may actually be higher than you’re used to. Another big expense that people often fail to factor in realistically: healthcare. Betts advises his clients that they can expect to spend $240,000 on it alone over a 25- to 30-year period. 

So don’t just rely on that one magic number. Do a retirement analysis to see how much money you’ll really need. Start by checking out the retirement calculator on your brokerage’s web site or use the one from Vanguard. You’ll be asked to input your assets, your current income, what you expect to spend after retirement, etc. For more individualized advice, see a certified financial planner. 

#2: You can’t say no to your kids and grandkids

As a parent, you spent a lot of time saying “no” to your kids when they were growing up—there’s a reason why most children’s first word is no! But now that they’re adults, do you feel like you just can’t stop saying yes when they ask for money? And same goes for your grandkids? At least you’re not alone. “A lot of my clients are caught with kids who have their hands out asking, ‘Gee, can you help us with this new house or can you float us $50,000,'" says Larry Stein, founder and CEO of Disciplined Investment Management, in Deerfield, IL. “I think it’s somewhat of a new trend; I haven’t really seen it before,” he adds. 

The danger is that a lot of times, people give and give to their children and grandchildren, and lose track of how much they can actually afford. Or they falsely think that they simply can do without the money. Stein says that while a common formula for retirees is that they will live on 80 percent of their pre-retirement incomes, the fact is, many of his clients don’t actually have that much to live on because they’re helping their kids and grandkids financially. 

If you find yourself in this boat, first understand that it’s okay to say no sometimes. Remind yourself, and perhaps your kids and grandkids, that your priority is to not become a burden to them. And you don’t want to wait until you’re facing serious financial trouble before you speak up. Since you’re living on a fixed income, you simply may never be able to make up a deficit. Stein recommends sitting down and evaluating your finances year-to-year or event-to-event (for instance, if you suffer an illness). And remember, helping out doesn’t necessarily have to involve money. You could suggest that you babysit or take the grandkids to their soccer games, instead.  

#3: You underestimate how healthy you really are

The news headlines say that Americans are living longer thanks to modern advances. But when it comes to thinking about one’s own longevity, Betts says many people tend to get the math wrong. “People are pessimistic,” he says. “They underestimate how long they’re going to live.” That, in turn, means they also undersave.

If you, like a lot of Betts’s clients, tend to look at your grandparents as a gauge for how long you’ll live, its time to change your perception. In fact, Betts advises clients to assume they're probably going to outlive their parents by a good 10 years. So instead of making the mistake of investing your money in “safe” products like bonds or a savings account, plan to have some money in stocks. It’s more likely to give you higher returns because of compound interest. One easy way to think about it is by using the rule of 72—take the percentage you think your stocks will earn, divide 72 by it, and that’s how many years it will take for your money to double. So if you think your portfolio is on track to earn 8 percent a year, it will take 9 years for your money to double. You’re unlikely to see that result with a savings account or bonds.

#4: You let your emotions drive your investments

Speaking of investing, do you find yourself biting your nails when the stock market goes down? Or worse, have you sold your stocks during a downturn before? You may think you’re avoiding further losses, but it’s actually a bad move. “One very common thing we see is when volatility is high, people get nervous and pull out of their equity holdings,” says Stein. It’s the exact opposite of what you should do, because when stocks are cheap, it’s the time to buy, not sell. Stein points out that historically, bear markets since the Great Depression recover their losses within a year. Even in the worst bear market—in 2008—if your money was, say, 60 percent in stocks and 40 percent in bonds, you would have made back your loss within two years. 

So when you get the jitters watching your portfolio go south during a market downturn, try to stay calm and remind yourself the worst thing you can do is panic and sell your holdings. Doing so actually means you’re locking in your losses. 

#5: Downsizing means simply less square footage to you

You’re finally ready to sell your house and you have your eye on a sweet condo in a nice retirement community. Just think of all the money you’ll save when you’re in a one-bedroom with no lawn to mow. Not so fast. Just because you have less space doesn’t mean you have less expenses. “While it’s a smaller home size-wise, the cost differential may not be that different, because of all the added costs of these kinds of communities,” says Stein. “You’ve downsized physically but you may not have downsized financially.” Developers are catering to Boomers with communities that offer all kinds of perks like health clubs, golf, a pool, and more. And all these extras add up.  

Don’t just look at the rent when you’re comparing properties. Factor in the maintenance fees and costs for other services that you’re interested in. Remember, unlike a mortgage, your rent is not tax deductible so you won’t get a break there. Look at the total picture of what you’re downsizing to. If reducing your financial commitment is the primary goal, don’t get carried away by a property’s bells and whistles.

#6: You’ve gone into travel overdrive

Everyone wants to mark his retirement in some way. And for many of us, the trip of a lifetime sounds perfect. But now’s not the time for a spare-no-expense attitude. In fact, while you may feel you should “live it up,” failing to stick to a budget could well make life harder financially. 

People often don’t think that one trip could affect their savings much. But Stein points out that a big expense coming at the beginning of retirement can be especially hard to recover from. When you reduce your assets at the beginning of retirement, you’re reducing the overall amount of money you have working for you to earn returns on your investments. And that could affect how much money you have in the long run. “I have clients for whom we’ve allocated a certain amount for a trip and they come back saying they got kind of carried away,” says Stein. “But that’s a real impact on their financial plan and we have to recalibrate everything.” 

Remember: Even though you may have fewer financial obligations later in life, you have less earning power, too. So while you should relax and enjoy life as much as possible, you still need to stay vigilant about your finances.

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