Americans' Top Financial Regrets: Which One Is Yours?

Everyone has regrets.

You might wish that you had studied more in school, or that you hadn't eaten that leftover pizza in the middle of the night. And there are certainly regrettable choices which, once made, are permanent. When it comes to our financial errors, though, it's often possible to repair the damage -- but the sooner you start taking action, the better.

What are our financial regrets?

In a new study from Bankrate, fully 76% of respondents admitted to having at least one big financial regret. Of those, 56% were disappointed by their choices on the savings front: Specifically, 27% wish they'd started saving earlier for retirement, 19% regret not saving enough for an emergency, and 10% said they hadn't saved enough for their children's college education.

"Saving money may seem impossible at times but taking a few proactive steps can safeguard you from potential hardship in the future," said Chief Financial Analyst Greg McBride in a press release. "Pay yourself first by setting up automatic deposits from your paycheck into a savings account and a retirement account such as your employer-sponsored retirement plan. Saving before you have a chance to spend will avoid those future financial regrets."

The other big category -- no surprise -- involved the flip side of saving: living beyond our means and going into debt. Those surveyed were most remorseful about their excessive credit card debt (16%), student loan debt (11%), or having bought more house than they could afford (7%).

The most unfortunate finding in the survey might not be that three-quarters of us were willing to admit to a money-related regret, but rather that that only half of those who did are taking steps to do something about it. Admittedly, 12% said they plan to get the next six months, while another 7% figure to begin addressing their issue between six months and a year from now. But 21% have no plans to address their financial regrets, which is a recipe for disaster.

What steps can you take?

It's important to forgive yourself for the past. Fixating on your regrets won't solve anything. Instead, take an inventory of where you stand, and start developing a plan.

If you're short on savings -- or worse, in debt -- start by assessing how much money you have coming in and how much you have going out each month. In other words, it is time to make a realistic and detailed budget. If you find there's a surplus after you've covered your core expenses, it's time to make increasing your savings or paying off debt a priority for those funds.

In nearly all cases, that's also going to mean cutting your spending elsewhere. It goes without saying that if your discretionary spending includes eating out multiple nights a week, running up big bar tabs, or "retail therapy," that's where to start trimming the fat.

If, however, like many Americans you're already operating on a tight budget, you either need to bring more money in or find deeper ways to cut. It's generally easier to boost your income somehow than to cut your housing costs. You can develop a side hustle, start looking for a better paying job, or both.

No matter what strategies you choose, the key steps are acknowledging your errors and taking action to improve your situation. That's probably the secret of those 24% of respondents who said they didn't have any financial regrets to report. Because none of us do all the right things -- but all of us can regroup and work to correct our mistakes.

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