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Good financial habits don’t just happen. Like washboard abs, most people have to work to develop them.
Racking up monthly charges on your credit cards without paying off the balance is a common bad financial habit. Not reviewing credit card statements is another.
But other, more subtle behaviors can be tipoffs to a disorganized financial life.
Getting caught with a late fee because you lost or forgot about a bill points to a too-loose approach to finances. Avoiding financial decisions because you don’t know enough is another warning bell.
Sometimes an otherwise good financial decision – such as making extra mortgage payments – doesn’t make sense at a specific time. For people with student or credit card debt, for instance, that extra mortgage payment may not be a great choice, says Todd Hoffman, certified financial planner with Steward Partners.
Five habits you may think are no big deal can, in fact, make a difference when you want to accomplish financial goals.
1. You don’t have a budget
It may feel old-fashioned, but a budget is essential.
“There is no good excuse for not having a budget and keeping track of expenses, period,” said Elias Janetis, founder and CEO of Squeeze.com, a financial services comparison website.
Know that, even with a budget, you can still leak money. “Watch out for expenses like unused gym memberships with fine print that makes cancellation costly,” Janetis said. Another potential trap: free trials that require credit card info. Make sure these don’t turn into unwanted paid subscriptions.
A budget can prevent you getting too far off track, Hoffman says. If you regularly review expenses, you’ll see that something may be an actual problem and not just a onetime occurrence.
Get in the habit of consistent tracking, Hoffman says. You’ll know there’s a problem if your bank balance is dipping rather than rising at the end of the month.
2. You shop without a list
Spur-of-the-moment purchases are just one way to shop unthinkingly.
“People who don’t think through their purchase plan will get into financial trouble,” Janetis said.
When it comes to essential and recurring services such as cell phones, internet and cable, you need to compare prices and look for deals.
Make lists and do your due diligence to make sure you don’t spend more than necessary and possibly more than you have — whether it’s for a suit or a service billed monthly.
Check Consumer Reports and comparison websites, or talk over decisions with a knowledgeable friend who has already done the research.
3. You use a credit card daily
If credit card debt is starting to mount, you may want to take a second look at how you use cards. Don’t accumulate debt on everyday expenses. For groceries, gas money, daily purchases and the like, stick to a debit card.
The money comes right out of your checking account, so you must limit spending to what’s available. You also won’t accrue any interest charges or late fees.
“Try keeping your credit cards at home to resist the temptation of a quick credit card swipe or use cash to make purchases,” Williams said. “It will quickly become clear where you can avoid overspending.”
4. Your finances are a forbidden topic
While not necessarily a bad habit, staying silent on financial matters may hurt you rather than help you, says Marissa Savino Williams, a financial advisor with Northwestern Mutual.
The way to become confident financially and reach your goals is to be willing to learn — and that means learning from your mistakes. “Read books [and] articles and talk to a financial advisor who can lead you in the right direction,” Williams said. “Your money is too important not to talk about.”
5. Your head’s in the clouds.
You are oblivious to your finances.
You don’t know your credit score. You don’t know all your company’s benefits. If your company offers a 401(k) plan and you’re not participating, you’re in denial about the fact that you’ll want to retire someday but you won’t have saved enough. Or you are saving through the 401(k), but you’re not saving enough to get the company match.