Americans’ Biggest Financial Regrets of the Decade



The old saying often rings true — hindsight is 2020. Everyone makes mistakes, and many of these blunders involve money. Many financial decisions seem like a good idea in the moment, but a few weeks, months or even years later, you realize they weren’t the best choice.

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A 2019 survey conducted by Policygenius highlights Americans’ biggest financial regrets of the decade. If you’ve ever made a major purchase you regret or opted to spend money when you should’ve been saving — admit it, you have — you’re not alone.

The good news is, financial mishaps can be corrected. If you’re willing to make meaningful changes, you can get yourself out of an uncomfortable financial situation. This might involve making tough sacrifices and/or working extra hours, but it’ll be worth it in the end.

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Here’s a look at the top financial regrets, along with advice to help make the problem a thing of the past.

Last updated: Sept. 24, 2021

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1. Credit Card Debt

Credit card debt can easily creep up on you. Whether you need to swipe the plastic to pay an unplanned expense or get tempted by something fun — i.e., an expensive pair of shoes or a big screen TV — racking up unpaid balances adds up fast.

One-quarter (25.1%) of people ages 35 and up cite incurring credit card debt as their biggest regret of the decade. Slightly lower, 21.5% of people ages 18 to 34 share this sentiment.

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How To Tackle Credit Card Debt

If you have credit card debt, you’re in good company. Consumer credit card debt reached a record-high of $829 billion in 2019, according to Experian. Additionally, retail credit card debt totaled a record-breaking $90 billion.

Now is the time to stop being weighed down by credit card debt. If you’re ready to take action, total up all of your balances, so you know where you stand. Then decide if you’d like to take the avalanche approach — paying the highest interest cards first — or the snowball approach — paying the lowest balance first.

Look at your spending to find ways to tighten your budget, so you have extra cash to put toward paying off credit card debt. You might even consider going cash-only for a while to keep balances down.

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2. Student Loan Debt

For millions of Americans, incurring student loan debt is a necessary evil. Essentially, if you want to make top-dollar in the workforce, you have to spend money to earn a degree. Some students are able to avoid this or at least curb it with scholarships and financial assistance from family. However, others have the burden placed squarely on their shoulders for years after graduation.

In total, 22.7% of people ages 18 to 34 have major regrets about their student loan debt. Interestingly, only 12.1% of people ages 35 and up feel the same way.

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How To Get Rid of Your Student Loan Debt

For students who borrowed money, the average student loan debt is $30,000, according to U.S. News.

Start paying your debt down by taking inventory of the different types of loans, to see which are the most costly. You might also consider consolidating certain loans, making bi-weekly payments to reduce interest and signing up for automatic payments — which can lower your interest rate by 0.25%.

If you can swing it, try paying a little extra each month too. For example, Sallie Mae notes that if you have a current loan balance of $10,000, at an 8% interest rate and a repayment term of 10 years, paying an extra $20 per month will save you $983.15 and allow you to pay your loan off in eight years and one month.

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3. Not Saving Enough for Retirement

When you first enter the workforce, retirement can seem so far away that it’s easy to procrastinate planning for it. However, failing to save for your golden years can lead to regrets down the road.

For example, 18.2% of people ages 35 and up cite delaying retirement savings as their greatest financial mishap. Of those in the 18-to-34-year-old age group, 11.7% share this opinion. The lower response from the latter could indicate that more have started saving for retirement, but it’s also likely that because retirement is so far away, they’re not as concerned yet.

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How To Save More for Retirement

Fidelity recommends saving at least 15% of your pretax income each year for retirement. This includes any contributions you receive from your employer, which can make a huge difference. For example, if your employer matches up to 6% of your contributions, you would only need to save 9% of your pretax income each year.

If this number seems overwhelming, start slow. Review your spending to look for expenses that can be cut. For example, start brewing your morning coffee at home each day, and put the money you save into your retirement account. A few small changes can make a huge difference.

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4. Buying a House

Owning a home is symbolic of the American Dream, but it’s not always a happy ending. Many homeowners move in and quickly realize mortgages, taxes, upkeep and other expenses add up fast — sometimes too fast.

Consequently, 8.1% of people ages 18 to 34 cite overspending on housing as their top regret of the decade. An ever-so-slightly less 7.2% of those 35 and up agree that their current housing situation is too expensive for their budget.

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How To Solve Your Housing Problem

When you first bought your home, you thought the monthly expenses associated with it seemed reasonable. However, things have changed. Whether you lost your job, took a pay cut or simply realized owning your home is a lot more expensive than you planned, you know you’re in over your head.

There are a number of actions you can take to solve this issue. You might refinance your mortgage, take on a renter or pursue additional income. However, you could also decide it’s time to throw in the towel and sell the house.

Taking the latter option could pay, as it’s currently a sellers’ market. As of September 2020, the median home price is up almost 15% from one year ago, according to Realtor.com.

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5. Lack of Emergency Savings

Among many other lessons, the economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis has underlined the importance of having a solid emergency savings fund. Unfortunately, millions of Americans who lost their jobs or were forced to take a pay cut didn’t have this financial cushion to fall back on.

While this survey was taken before the pandemic, people in both age groups understood the importance of having this cash on hand. Nearly one-fifth (19.3%) of people ages 35 and up said their biggest financial regret is a lack of emergency savings, followed by 17.3% of 18-to-34-year-olds.

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How To Fix Your Lack of Emergency Savings

Life is unpredictable, so you never know when you’re going to need cash fast. An unplanned medical expense, home repair or job loss can easily cause a major financial setback. Consequently, experts recommend having at least three to six months’ worth of expenses set aside in an emergency fund.

Don’t panic if you don’t currently have an emergency fund or if yours lacks the necessary funds. Start working now to put cash aside for a rainy day. Accomplish this by trimming unnecessary expenses — i.e., order less takeout — pursuing money-saving opportunities — i.e., shopping sales and clipping coupons — and taking on a side job to earn extra cash.

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