Thursday, May 8, 2008

14 Common Financial Mistakes People Make and 14 Rules Most Should Follow Most of the Time

I have handled lots of divorces, reviewed lots of financial statements, and helped clients manage the difficult financial negotiations and restructurings attendant upon marital dissolution. I am often surprised by what I see intelligent people do, or not do, with their money. The following are 14 of the most common financial mistakes I have found that people make. I have had clients who are in poverty and others who are extremely wealthy. But these 14 mistakes are related to my experience with the majority of people for whom I have worked - people who are, like most of us, somewhere in between those two financial extremes.

There are other kinds of "mistakes" which are made in the course of divorce - and by this, I mean there are settlement decisions, which, at least from the point of view of personal finance, seem not efficient or optimal. Divorce settlements sometimes lead to some objectively bad financial moves that are, however, quite unavoidable, as they are often related to non-financial considerations or other exigencies. I am not speaking about those kinds of "mistakes" in this post, but only about general financial management mistakes I have found couples and families to have made long before they were at the point of divorce. (Lawyerly Disclaimer: These are general observations, and of course not offered as specific advice to anyone in particular. I am your unpaid blogger, not your attorney.)

14 Common Financial Mistakes People Make

1) Have no emergency or "rainy day" fund.
2) Buy a house they cannot afford.
3) Don't save enough for retirement.
4) Consult "financial advisers" from institutions such as American Express, and actually take their advice.
5) Buy whole life insurance rather than term life insurance.
6) Take out second mortgage or equity line on their home for consumer purchases.
7) Buy annuities.
8) Pay down house or other lower interest rate debts before higher interest rate debts.
9) Buy individual stocks, or day trade, in any area outside personal area of primary expertise.
10) Buy a timeshare.
11) Borrow against retirement funds, or liquidate retirement funds.
12) Go into business, or purchase property, together with a relative other than a spouse.
13) If in serious credit card debt, pay a "debt counselor" or "credit counselor" but never consult a good bankruptcy lawyer.
14) Use credit cards to pay for everything, and keep a balance on which they pay high interest.

OK, now for my 14 Rules. These are general rules which are derived from, and correspond to, the 14 Common Mistakes above. These are rules that I believe most people should follow most of the time. If you are super wealthy or destitute, obviously these do not apply to you. These are just rules, and there are exceptions to rules. Disclaimer: as general rules, these observations of mine, of course, do not constitute specific advice for any individual. As I say in these rules themselves, all should do research themselves and take charge of their own financial future, and if possible, seek specific advice from a fiduciary who can look at their particular situations, see the big picture, and give advice tailored to their particular situations.

14 Rules Most Should Follow Most of the Time

1) Maintain an emergency fund, in money market funds, conservative bond funds, or treasury bills, that is highly liquid, and outside retirement, equal to six months of your regular living expenses.

2) Buy a house, with at least 20 percent down, only if it is in a neighborhood that is a good long-term place for you and your family to live, only if you will be living there in that particular home for at least five years, and only if it costs half, or less than half, as much as the biggest house "you can afford," as calculated by the lender.
Be conservative. Your home is always more expensive, and in more ways than you think, than you initially realize. You need a cushion so you can save, and you should save not just in one piece of real estate, but in other types of investments, such as stock mutual funds. Do not be "house poor" like so many people are.

3) Save at least 20 percent of your gross income in retirement - through IRAs, 401Ks, employer pension funds, etc. Obviously, take full advantage of 401Ks especially when there is employer matching.

4) If you are getting financial advice, be sure that you are using a fiduciary, not a sales person working on commissions. Do research yourself, and find a fee-only financial adviser who is a fiduciary, and will work only for you, or do it yourself. If you can't find that kind of financial adviser - many independent, fee-only financial advisers will only work on behalf of individuals with significant assets, of $1 million or more - consult a good lawyer or just do it yourself. See Can you trust your financial adviser? By Liz Pulliam Weston- MSN Money.

5) If you have children, buy level term life insurance for a term that will extend no later than when your youngest child is 25. Don't buy any other life insurance. For the vast majority of people, whole life insurance is a bad idea; in my experience, most people who have it shouldn't. They would almost always be better off investing instead in stocks and bonds through mutual funds. I am often surprised at what I see. For example, I had a client who together with his spouse had paid around $1,000 a year for only $15,000 of life insurance in their children's names to cover the children's burial expenses! Of course this horrible idea had been sold to that client by a sleazy "financial adviser" working on commission. That money would have bought that client at least an extra million dollars of term life insurance. If you really like insurance, and depending on your circumstances, after taking care of term life insurance needs, you should instead buy disability insurance. In fact, for many, that will be an even more important move than buying term life insurance. If you don't have children, or other dependents, you should only think about disability insurance.

6) If you can't afford to pay for consumer purchases, including new cars, boats, vacations, or other things, from your current regular streams of income, do not buy them. Do not take out a second loan on your home to do so. See Rule 2 and Rule 14.

7) Don't buy annuities. Only rarely are these worthwhile. If provided by an employer, fine, but don't buy them. These are usually bought because of sales commissions. See Rule 4. Instead, invest wisely, and diversify, in mutual funds for the long haul. Buy and hold. I favor index funds with low expenses, such as Vanguard funds. One example: Lots in large cap (S&P 500), some in small and midcap, and some in international. See again Rule 3.

8) Pay down highest interest rate debts, such as credit cards, first before you pay down other debts. You should always, of course, make timely payments on your loans when due, but do not pay extra to reduce the principal debt if there are other debts you have with higher interest rates. However, if you are a sure candidate for bankruptcy, you should sometimes in fact stop paying high interest unsecured debts, like credit cards, entirely. But if you think that might be the case, see a bankruptcy lawyer first before doing this. See Rule 13.

9) If you have lots of money to invest - that is, if you still have money left over after you have invested 20 percent or more of your gross income in retirement funds - you may, if you insist, invest just a small portion of your extra money in individual stocks, but only in companies in an industry about which you have more knowledge than anything else, and never the company you work for. See Rule 3 and Rule 7. I have seen too many engineers who have been burned after overconfidently, aggressively and foolishly gambling on high tech stocks or other high-risk, high-return investments. If your company provides its own stock, or stock options as benefits, fine, but if and when possible, divest as much as possible, and diversify your investments into other holdings. And generally, unless you are really as smart as Warren Buffett, you should be primarily investing in solid mutual funds rather than trying to beat the odds by picking your own individual stocks.

10) Don't buy a timeshare. Pay as you go for vacations. Ridiculous timeshares are, in my experience, the asset divorcing parties most often want the other to take, as by the time of their divorce, they often realize that they should never have bought them. And don't buy a second home, unless you can afford it - that is, you have regularly saved enough for retirement, and are continuing to save 20 percent of your gross income for retirement, have no need to save for any child's future college expenses (you have enough saved in a 529 plan or otherwise to pay for your children's college costs) and still have money left over.

11) If tempted to raid your retirement fund, which will lead to absurd penalties, find any way you can to avoid this. If you can't cut your expenses or find a way to pay for the necessary things in another way, then come up with the money by temporarily halting your present contributions to retirement (preferable), or borrowing against your retirement (if it absolutely has to be done, this is better than taking an early withdrawal, but this is still bad). This should usually not be a problem if you follow Rule 1.

12) Go into business in one of the following ways only: a) by yourself, b) with others who are not relatives - but get a detailed, written agreement- or c) not at all. When buying a house or other property that you will live in, either do this by yourself, with your spouse - yes, still risky, but this is what marriage is about - or not at all.

13) If you have a lot of high interest, unsecured debt, consult a bankruptcy lawyer to see if you can and should go bankrupt, and if not, how best to get rid of the debt you have. Again, pay down the highest interest rate debt first. Usually you will want to maintain good credit and maximize your credit score, but sometimes you should default on high interest, unsecured debt. Get out of high interest rate debts one way or another, usually by paying them off as soon as possible, unless it is feasible and appropriate for you to avoid paying back the debt, through bankruptcy or default, after consulting a bankruptcy attorney. Often bankruptcy will be a better long-term move, and your credit may actually improve in a short period of time after you eliminate outrageous debts and make a financial recovery. There are many credit counselors who do nothing for you, and just make money as the middleman between you and the horrible vultures that are known as credit card companies.

14) Buy in cash, or use your bank debit card to make purchases, and pay off credit card balances in full each month. Can't or don't want to pay for it now? Then don't buy it. See Rule 6.

For information about personal finance, especially in the context of divorce and family law, see some links to a few good websites and financial calculators on the links page of my law firm website.

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