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Microwaving Contacts, And Other Mega-Goofs

By Michelle Singletary
Saturday, July 21, 2007

Author Pearl S. Buck wrote in "What America Means to Me" that "every great mistake has a halfway moment, a split second when it can be recalled and perhaps remedied."

In today's world, we have to make so many personal finance decisions that mistakes are bound to happen. But what might we all learn if we shared our own head-banging financial errors?

It's with that thought in mind that I decided to create the first annual "My Mega-Money-Mistake Contest."

I am delighted that so many people were willing to publicly admit their errors -- some heart-wrenching and others humorous.

For example, I probably shouldn't have, but I did chuckle at Ken Hock's story.

"Several years ago, I purchased a pair of soft contact lenses at a cost of $350," the Whitehall, Pa., resident wrote. "One morning I went to put my lenses in the heater and the heater would not work. I put them in the case and popped them in the microwave for 30 seconds thinking it would sanitize my lenses. Ten seconds later I heard this pop."

As I said in announcing the contest, the amount of money lost did not have to be huge. Rather, I was also looking for mega-mistakes that illustrated larger points.

That certainly was the case with the third-place winner, Latia Bowles of Washington.

Bowles wrote that when she came into a little chunk of money (an inheritance from a family member), she opted to pay off a bunch of bills, including a $3,500 student loan.

"I thought I had paid my loan off in full, but it turns out that I had a very small balance," she said. "Now almost five years, two children and many other money mistakes later, my credit score drops because my student loan company reported my nonpayments."

Her balance: $55, plus $22 in interest and $12 in late fees. Bowles's story illustrates how important it is to clarify the status of your loan with the lender if you are doing an early payoff. Once you make that final payment, you need to double-check to make sure the debt is cleared.

Second place goes to John Flaherty of Pawtucket, R.I. He's proof that no good financial deed goes unpunished.

Flaherty's co-worker was having trouble paying on her $1,300 credit card charges. Concerned that his colleague would never get out of her debt hole because of the late fees and high interest rate tacked on, Flaherty paid off the entire bill.

"I had just about that amount in my savings so I felt I was in the position to help her and it gave me a nice Mother Teresa feeling," he said. "She was elated and thanked me profusely."

His co-worker agreed to pay Flaherty $100 a month.

I'm sure you can guess what happened next.

Two months after their agreement, Flaherty hadn't seen a penny in repayment. He asked for his money.

"She said she will start [repaying] very soon," he said. "After another attempt she said, 'I'll pay you back what I can when I can.' "

Okay, right after that comment, security would have had to escort me out of the building for threatening a co-worker.

The woman then left the company. She refused to return any of Flaherty's e-mails or telephone calls.

So, anytime anybody asks you for a loan, remember Flaherty.

Finally, the first-place prize goes to Erik Bartlett of Casco, Maine.

"This subject is still very painful to me," Bartlett wrote. "Back in 1991, I began investing $2,000 a year in stock; pretty much all tech funds and stocks. Needless to say, this was like printing money at the time."

Bartlett said he was getting returns of more than 30 percent a year. At the end of the decade, he had parlayed $14,000 into $130,000.

"I thought I was an absolute genius," he said.

In 1998, his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. When she died two years later, Bartlett received $150,000 from her life insurance. He thought at the time that the best use of the money was to continue investing it in the technology sector. He had planned to use part of his returns to help send his granddaughter to college.

Around the end of the 1990s and into early 2000, many technology stocks began to tank.

In the end, Bartlett lost about 90 percent of that $280,000.

"Now, I realize that I'm not a genius, and am quite careful about where I put my money," he says.

The lesson here for investors comes down to just one word -- diversify.

Bowles and Flaherty each win $25. Bartlett will receive $50.

Thanks to everyone who entered the contest. Please know I will be sharing your stories in future columns or in my online e-letter. Perhaps others will remember your mega-money mistakes and avoid their own blunders.

Research assistant Charity Brown contributed to this column.

· On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online athttp://www.npr.org.

· By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

· By e-mail:singletarym@washpost.com.

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