For most people, each and every day involves some type of financial decision. So how do you feel about your financial decision-making skills? If you think you are making sound choices, ask yourself this: Have you weighed the consequences of your choices against their apparent benefits? In many cases, the answer is no.
Let's take a look at six common financial choices that sound like smart moves, but could leave you scratching your head wondering where you went wrong.
- Applying for a Line Of Credit
Advantages: Starting a line of credit will diversify your credit sources, which is good news for your credit score. It also allows you to access funds you may need for large purchases, like buying a car, without having to scramble to arrange the funds when you decide to buy.
Consequences: A line of credit is too often treated like free money. In many cases, such easy access to funds leads borrowers to rack up consumer debt for things they don't really need. And there's nothing free about this cash injection: borrowers have to make minimum payments on the line's outstanding balance. In addition, a balance will limit borrowing power on other loans, such as a mortgage. (To learn more about lines of credit and other sources of consumer credit, see Different Needs, Different Loans.)
- Withdrawing From Your 401(k) or Retirement Savings to Pay Down Debt
Advantages: If you have a big debt to pay off, you may choose to either put off contributing to a retirement or savings fund, or to withdraw money from an existing fund. The upside to this is that paying down debt is a good thing, and the sooner it is paid off, the greater the savings in interest expenses for the borrower.
Consequences: By withdrawing funds set aside for retirement, you are robbing yourself of the benefits of compounding. Also, pulling the money out of your savings could leave you in a very bad position should something unexpected, like a job loss, happen. The earlier you start saving, the more money you will be able to accumulate for retirement. If properly invested, money saved now is almost always better than more money saved later. (For more on the power of compound interest, see Compounding Your Way To Retirement.)
- Choosing Only the Safest Investing Vehicles
Advantages: If you invest in risk-free or nearly risk-free vehicles, the risk of losing your hard-earned cash is extremely low. This can be a viable option, especially if you are nearing retirement.
Downside: However, you are again missing out on the opportunity to have your money work for you. Take into consideration your age and stage of life when deciding your risk level. Although everyone's risk tolerance is different, generally speaking, the younger you are, the riskier you can afford to be. This is because you have the time to make up any losses, and also because the higher risk may be warranted because it helps combat the effects of inflation on your portfolio's gains. The closer you are to retirement (or to whatever goal you are saving for) the more conservative you should be in order to protect your investment. (To learn more about risk, see Determining Risk And The Risk Pyramid.)
- Avoiding Debt Altogether
Advantages: "Debt free". It sounds good, doesn't it? And it can be. Living debt-free is a wonderful goal and is more achievable than you might think.
Downside: However, debt can also be a tool. If, in your quest to remain debt free, you are turning down "good debt", that is, debt that allows you to leverage your investments, you are doing yourself a disservice. Examples of good debt include taking out a mortgage to buy a house. This is because houses and property tend to appreciate over time, and owning your home can lower your living expenses compared to renting. Another example would be taking out a student loan for post-secondary education. While student debt can be a huge responsibility, it is also an investment in yourself that boosts your potential earning power.
- Cutting Your Variable Spending
Advantages: If you are looking to cut your spending, this suggests that you have a budget to modify. That's great! Often variable expenses (expenses that are not fixed, such as entertainment, dining out and personal spending) are out of line with the amount we earn. An honest appraisal of where your money is going is a great step to getting your budget in fighting shape.
Downside: This seemingly great idea is only great if you include the second part of it: sticking to your new budget. Unrealistic expectations, or treating your budget goals as "guidelines" rather than rules, could leave you spending more than ever. (For more tips, see Get Emotional Spending Under Control.)
- Paying Off a Major Loan in One Payment
Advantages: You've been working hard and saving – smart! Before your loans start accumulating interest, or even if they have, you decide to pay them off in one payment. That's a wonderful accomplishment that will save you months', or years' worth of interest.
Downside: If you choose this route, make sure you take a look at your interest rate. Some loans have such a low interest rate that you'd be better off putting your money in a savings account that earns you a higher return and paying off your debt monthly. Keep in mind this is only a good idea if 1) your savings interest rate is higher than your debt interest rate and 2) you are disciplined enough to pay the debt off on time, every month, and not to spend your hard-earned cash on luxuries instead. The bonus? Responsibly paying off monthly debt helps you to establish a good credit history. This is especially helpful if you don't have a credit history (or you are trying to rebuild a bad one).
There's nothing worse than making a choice you thought was conscientious only to find out it had hidden consequences. Make sure you do your homework and your financial situation will be the best it can be.