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Three big mistakes Americans keep making with their money


Americans are having a much better time managing their money than they did a few years ago, but it turns out some bad habits are hard to break.

According to a new report, many people still struggle with key financial practices, such as saving for long-term goals or managing their debt loads, said Gerri Walsh, president of the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, which issued the report. The study polled more than 27,500 Americans across the country on the way they use credit, save for goals and make other financial decisions. The foundation conducts this study every three years.

Here’s a look at some of the major blunders consumers are still making when it comes to their finances. See how you stack up:

Costly mistakes with credit cards

When it comes to credit cards, 11 percent of consumers said they used them for a cash advance in 2015, almost unchanged from the 13 percent who did so in 2009. The advances, which typically incur high interest charges as soon as the advance is issued, can be pricier than regular credit card purchases, for which interest charges can be avoided.

Another bad habit that many people still maintain is making only the minimum payment on their credit cards. Thirty-two percent of respondents said that they did this last year, potentially increasing the amount of interest they would pay on their debt over time. “When you think about behaviors that are better for your finances, you want to reduce the amount of interest you’re paying on revolving credit,” Walsh said. “And you want to lower the overall cost of borrowing by reducing exposure to costly fees.”

But some consumers are being smarter about the way they use their cards. The share of people who said they pay off their cards in full each month grew to 52 percent in 2015 from 41 percent in 2009, making it easier to keep their debt levels low and to avoid interest charges on their purchases.

Spending more than they earn

As Americans recovered from the recession, many landed jobs with stable income. But despite the added financial security, Americans are still making one common error when it comes to their money — they spend all of it. “They’re either spending every penny that they make or they’re spending more than they make,” Walsh said.

Some 18 percent of consumers said they spent more than what they earned in 2015, down only slightly from 20 percent in 2009. The percentage of people who spent less than what they earned, meaning they had cash left over to save, declined slightly to 40 percent in 2015 from 42 percent in 2009. That shows that even though consumers are overall more likely to have jobs and are less worried about falling behind on bills, they don’t feel much more of an urgency to set their extra money aside, Walsh said.

But overall, people are having a better time making ends meet. The share of people who faced unexpected drops in income fell to 22 percent in 2015 from 40 percent in 2009. And the portion of consumers who said they had no trouble paying their bills rose to 48 percent from 36 percent.

Not planning enough for retirement

Only 39 percent of people surveyed said they had done the math on how much money they will need in retirement, basically unchanged from the 37 percent who said so in 2009. The share of people who have a retirement account also hadn’t changed much since 2009, although it did rebound from a dip in 2012 — potentially a sign that some people who lost their jobs during the recession regained access to accounts after landing new positions, Walsh said.

The lack of progress on the retirement front shows that many people are still struggling to save for long-term goals, she said. Instead, they are focusing on more immediate needs such as saving for emergencies, vacations or their children’s college education. Indeed, the share of people with an emergency fund that could cover at least three months’ worth of expenses grew to 46 percent in 2015 from 35 percent in 2009. And the share of people who said they were saving for college grew to 41 percent in 2015 from 31 percent in 2009.

The report, which highlighted various shifts in the ways consumers manage their money, can offer people a sense of where they stand financially when compared to others around the country. And for those looking for financial goals after feeling better about their jobs, the findings might offer some ideas for habits they may finally want to kick.

The Washington Post gives helpful tips to avoid frequent mistakes made by people while preparing for retirement. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin, Jonnelle Marte/The Washington Post)

Read more:

The five money mistakes that are making you poor

How millionaires under 40 manage their money

Retirement mistakes people make at every age