Personal finance is a big world of gray. Some decisions don’t mathematically make sense on paper, but we do them anyway. Sometimes it’s unknowingly and other times it’s because we think either we know what’s going to happen in the future, or maybe we think we’re being smart with our money. Here’s a short list of things that don’t make financial sense.
Not filling up your gas tank if you have the means to do so – Okay, this one is kind of silly but a few weeks ago I found myself doing this. I went to the pump and only filled up halfway because in the moment I thought gas prices were sort of high, and that if I came back in a week, they might be cheaper. It wasn’t something I felt strongly about, but it’s a bet I took, nonetheless. When I did go back the following week, gas was actually more expensive. *Cringe*. Attempting to predict movements in gas prices is a lot like trying to predict moves in the market.
Only putting money in the market when it’s doing well (and getting out when things get scary) – Sounds reasonable, put your money into something that’s working and take it out when it’s not. This is the definition of buying high and selling low, exactly the opposite of what you should do.
Paying off low interest debt – This is especially true when you’re nearing the end of the life of a loan as oftentimes the bulk of the interest comes on the front end. In some cases, you’d be better off investing the cash instead of paying off low interest debt.
Sitting on cash – I’m talking about cash in excess of a typical emergency savings. Because cash, as opposed to stocks, always loses value during periods of inflation.
Making Roth contributions when you’re in a high tax bracket – Whether it be through payroll deferral in your 401k or through the 2-step process in your IRA. If you’re in a high tax bracket, you’d likely be better off taking the current known benefit today by saving pre-tax dollars and lowering your tax bill, versus the unknown benefit at some point in the future by paying the tax today and having post-tax dollars saved.
Tax loss harvesting – Not only does it just defer the taxes in the long run by reducing your basis in an investment, but you could also get burned on volatility, especially if you are being mindful of wash sale rules and sit out of the market for 30+ days. Not only that, but it fundamentally goes against the core purpose of investing, to make money.
Buying more term life insurance than you need – Spending money on premiums for extra insurance when you could put it towards something that grows, like your investments.
Now here’s a counter to all those points:
Not filling up your gas tank if we have the means to do so – Filling up my gas tank only halfway is definitely silly but probably won’t hurt me in the long run. Can’t say I’ll do it again, but I’m human so it’s possible.
Only putting money in the market when it’s doing well (and getting out when things get scary) – Not a lot to counter here as buying investments when the market is up and selling them when the market is down over and over is a quick way to derail a financial plan. But if you’ve learned your lesson after a time or two it may not be detrimental to your overall financial health, depending on the size of your trade. But this is something you definitely don’t want to be doing consistently. Having a systematic plan in place is the best way to remove emotion from your trading.
Paying off low interest debt – To the extent that you’re a saver who can still meet your required savings goals and if you’re not stressing your current cash flow too much, paying off lower interest debt may not hurt. If you’re in distribution mode and living off your portfolio, you’ll want to make sure you have enough left in your portfolio after paying off your debt to sustain your lifestyle.
Sitting on cash – Sitting on a ton of cash during periods of inflation creates real negative returns. We know this, turn on the news and in about ten minutes or less you’ll hear about inflation and the lost purchasing power we’re all experiencing today. But just as it is with paying off debt, if you’re still able to save or have enough cushion in other places, sitting on some cash, in excess of your emergency savings, may not be all that relevant to your long-term success.
Tax loss harvesting – Losing money should never be your objective but there are a few times when selling at a loss can make sense. For example, if you wanted to diversify a taxable portfolio, selling a concentrated position at a loss to buy in to a more diversified position when the market is down can make a lot of sense.
Making Roth contributions when you’re in a high tax bracket – The math is pretty easy on this one. High earners are better off taking a tax deduction than not. But if the bulk of your savings is tied up in tax-deferred dollars, it may give you some flexibility to have some post-tax dollars saved up as well.
Buying more term life insurance than you need – Paying premiums for a bunch of term life insurance above what you might need some would say is a waste of money. Buy what you need and invest the rest is pretty good advice. But if you have young children, a spouse, or other dependents that rely on you as a source of income and you aren’t sitting on a ton of assets, it might give you peace of mind to make sure they’re covered, and then some, if something were to happen to you.
Some decisions don’t make a lot of financial sense on paper but if they reduce risk, increase your happiness/health/emotional wellbeing, and don’t derail your long-term plans, they might just be worth doing. Whether or not they make sense for you and your plan, is a conversation worth having with your advisor.