"I fell hard for a sales pitch."
The Expert: Sheryl Garrett, 46, founder of the Garrett Planning Network; author of Personal Finance Workbook for Dummies (Wiley)
My friends joke, "You can't trust Sheryl with a remote control and a credit card." Show me a late-night infomercial and I think, "I've got to have that." But a worse impulse purchase happened on a supposedly frugal vacation in Florida 20 years back. There was a kiosk offering breakfast, tickets to your choice of theme parks, and $50 in cash, in exchange for listening to a time-share presentation. I went — and walked out $6,000 poorer, owner of a one-week stay every year at a fancy hotel near Disney World. The deal included a visit to a Pompano Beach resort, where I fell for yet another pitch and coughed up $13,000 for a two-week time-share. Later I found that maintenance and other expenses add up to $1,000 a year. Selling isn't a great option, since time-shares usually go for far less than the original purchase price.
Lesson Learned: Now I don't buy anything without checking product reviews and doing price comparisons. I buy only what I need and can afford. I don't answer the door if the vacuum cleaner salesman knocks — unless I'm shopping for that brand of vacuum. I avoid situations where anyone might try to sell me anything. So no more retail therapy at department stores — and no more watching TV with credit card in hand.
"I overpaid for car insurance."
The Expert: Elizabeth Warren, 59, bankruptcy expert, professor of law at Harvard University and coauthor (with daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi) of All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan (Free Press)
A few years ago a friend was complaining about how expensive the insurance for her new car was. When she told me how much she was paying I realized my premiums were higher, even though my car was much older. It had been 12 years since I shopped around for the lowest price, and I kept renewing my policy, figuring it was still a bargain. But competition among insurance companies is pretty fierce, so they're constantly adjusting rates and offering reduced premiums to get your business. What's more, over time you may qualify for additional discounts, whether it's for a new car safety feature or through your employer or professional organization.
Lesson Learned: It took me less than an hour to get new estimates over the phone from my insurer and several other firms. I ended up switching companies, saving several hundred dollars a year. I was so revved up that I did the same with my health and homeowners' coverage and saved another $100. Now I give all my policies a yearly checkup to see if my rates are the lowest offered (you can compare them at insurance.com). I do it at tax time, since I already have all the financial paperwork in front of me. For a little legwork, the rewards can add up to a lot.
"I forgot to read all the fine print."
The Expert: Amelia Warren Tyagi, 37, COO and cofounder of Business Talent Group; coauthor of The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke (Basic Books)
When I signed up for a two-year gym membership in 1993 at one of the big national chains the salesperson told me I could discontinue it if I left New York City. Sure enough, I moved to Philadelphia later that year, but somewhere buried deep within the contract's fine print was a clause that required me to keep my membership if I was living within 30 miles of one of the gym's many outlets — which I was, but just barely. It was a long, hectic commute. So I stopped going, got mad and stopped paying my monthly bill. Then the gym put a nasty "failure to pay" smear on my credit report and collection agencies started calling me all the time. I knew if I didn't take care of the problem I might be denied credit in the future or get saddled with high interest rates. I eventually paid the rest of what I owed, about $200, which was nearly a year's worth of membership fees.
Lesson Learned: For big purchases or long-term commitments — loan or lease documents, for example, and especially mortgages — always read the fine print of the contract. Sadly, many people are losing their homes today because they didn't pore over those documents carefully. For cell phone and credit card contracts, pay close attention to hidden fees, penalties for late payments, and interest rates. As for club memberships, be sure to ask whether you can get out of them down the road if your circumstances change. Often you can't, which should serve as a reminder to ask yourself if you really want or need the product or service. No more gyms for me. Now I'm a jogger!
"I racked up $100,000 in credit card debt."
The Expert: Lynnette Khalfani, 40, author of The Money Coach's Guide to Your First Million (McGraw-Hill) and creator of The Money Coach's Financial Boot Camp, a get-out-of-debt audio CD series
Trying to keep up with the Joneses throughout the 1990s, I spent way more than I was making — a recipe for disaster. I was a financial journalist, supporting two kids and a husband while he was earning his doctorate. I paid our monthly expenses with a check from our credit card line and splurged on expensive vacations and gifts for family and friends. Then I got divorced and was hit hard with alimony and child support. By 2001 I was more than $100,000 in the red.
Lesson Learned: I had no one to blame but myself, and it was my responsibility to get out of the hole I'd dug. I cut out all purchases except for essentials and used the money I saved to triple my credit card payments instead of paying the minimum. I negotiated with lenders to get interest rates below 7 percent, down from an average of 13 percent. I used tax refunds to knock off huge chunks from what I owed. It took me three years to pay it all off. Then I changed my bad habits to get my spending under control for good. I buy only what I can pay off each month. I make choices every day to cut back — like leaving credit cards at home. And no more keeping up with the Joneses. No more fancy vacations when spending a long weekend at home with my kids is enough.
"I robbed my portfolio in an emergency."
The Expert: Liz Pulliam Weston, 45, author of the syndicated newspaper column "Money Talk" and the book Easy Money: How to Simplify Your Finances and Get What You Want Out of Life (FT Press)
I completely forgot about closing costs when my husband and I bought our house in 1998. I was starting a new job and totally stressed out, so I wasn't paying as much attention as I should have been. When my real estate agent reminded me to bring a $10,000 check, I panicked. Not wanting to drain our emergency funds, I sold $10,000 of Honeywell stock my mother had given me. So we ended up with a new home, but the living room and hallway stayed empty for two years until we managed to save enough money to buy furniture.
Lesson Learned: I did exactly what I tell people not to do. When you grab money in a hurry from your stock portfolio, you may have to sell for less than the purchase price. You've also wiped out an investment that might have paid off handsomely in the future. Now I plan ahead to make sure I can fully fund a major purchase, either by saving for it or knowing how I'll use other available finances to the best advantage. To keep from dipping into long-term savings — retirement, college, etc. — try to create a big enough emergency fund so you'll have the cash when you need it. I certainly learned that the hard way.
Originally published in the October 1, 2008, issue of Family Circle magazine.