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10 Common Money Mistakes You Might Be Making Without Even Realizing

Plus ways to save on groceries, prescriptions, and more.

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How you manage your money is so important, but it can also get kinda overwhelming. There's a lot to keep track of, and sometimes it's hard to tell if your money habits are ~healthy~ or not.

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But the good news is, there are some tried-and-true ways to get your cash flow under control. I recently sat down with Jeanette Pavini, a long-time finance reporter and the author of The Joy of Saving, to get some back-to-basics tips and tricks that can help take some of the guesswork out of managing your money.

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Here are 10 common money mistakes that could be secretly sabotaging your bank account — plus some great ways to avoid making them.

1. Spending without a plan.

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This is one of the biggest (and most common) money mistakes. Whether you want to break the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle or you're saving up for a big purchase, staying on top of how much you earn, spend, and save is absolutely key to accomplishing financial goals. And a budget is like a master plan that helps you keep an eye on alllllll of it. But according to a 2016 study by US Bank, only 41% of respondents actually used a budget. So if you're not a budgeter, you're definitely not alone.

Making a budget can seem daunting, but it doesn't have to be a bummer. "A lot of us put our heads in the sand," Pavini said. "But if you just look at what you're spending and then make some changes, it's a joyful feeling. It's empowering."

If you're new to budgeting, you can get started by whipping up a quick Excel sheet listing all of your income and expenses or check out some of these spreadsheet-free budgeting methods.

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2. Not budgeting because your income fluctuates month to month.

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When your income's always going up and down like a rollercoaster, it might feel like you're too busy just hanging on to the ride to think about making a budget. But this is actually a situation where budgeting can help you gain more control over unpredictable circumstances.

Pavini recommends figuring out your average income over the last six months to a year and using that number as a baseline. In months where you make more than this average, stash as much of that surplus as you can in your savings. That way, when you find yourself in a lower-earning month, you have a cushion to help you through.

3. Going overboard on "buy now, pay later" purchases.

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When you're shopping online these days, you're likely to see the option to buy now and pay off your new stuff later in a few smaller payments. However, this kind of shopping could result in a sneak attack on your bank account if you lose track of when those ~easy~ payments are due. Plus, missing a payment could lead to fees and other charges.

To avoid getting hit with shopping surprises, Pavini recommends only making installment payments in emergencies. "Unless it's something you really need, you're better off putting those four installments into a savings account."

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4. Grocery shopping without a list can be an especially big money drain.

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If you're anything like me, you probably wander around the grocery store three times grabbing random stuff until your basket is full and worry about meal-planning later. But Pavini says this is one of the worst ways you might be blowing your budget without even realizing it.

Instead, she recommends looking at what's on sale each week and planning your meals around those items. Additionally, join your grocery store's loyalty program and, of course, use coupons and coupon apps like Honey and Coupons.com. You might also like apps like Ibotta and Fetch Rewards that reward you with cash or gift cards for your everyday purchases. These shopping habits might take more time than what you're used to, but making these changes could free up more of your hard-earned cash.

And once you've got your groceries home, make sure you get your money's worth with these tips for freezing just about anything or these hacks for making fresh fruit and veggies last longer.

5. Paying too much for prescription drugs can take a big bite out of your cash flow.

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It's no secret that prescriptions can be pricey, but you might not have realized that you can actually save by calling different pharmacies for quotes to compare medication prices. And one big chain in particular is known for having great deals on medications: Costco. Pavini says that switching to Costco for her meds helped one woman she interviewed save over $100 a month. And, you don't need to be a member to get your prescriptions at Costco's pharmacy. You can call ahead to find out how to get your prescription filled at your store, or you can order online.

If your pet needs an rx, you can also save a lot by ordering it online at sites like 1-800-PetMeds or Chewy. And if your pet needs a drug that's also used in humans (like certain meds for itching, pain, infection, and digestive issues), you might be able to save big by getting them filled at a regular pharmacy. Ask your veterinarian if your pet's drug is approved for extra-label or off-label use (which means that a pharmacy can legally fill it for animals). And also be sure to double-check with your vet about any potential safety concerns, as some drugs formulated for humans may contain additives that could be dangerous to your pet.

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6. Not taking full advantage of your health insurance benefits.

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If you pay for your own health insurance plan or get it through your employer, it's likely that your plan offers more than just doctor's visits. Some plans will reimburse you for your gym membership or send you gift cards for hitting daily step count goals. Others even offer free support for people who want to quit smoking or reach other health goals.

If you have a policy, it's definitely worthwhile getting familiar with all the perks your health insurance has to offer. You're already paying for it, so you might as well get your money's worth.

7. Not putting away some savings every month could be setting yourself up for future debt.

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Getting into the habit of saving can be tough; and after the ~unprecedented~ year we just had, it's more than understandable if your savings are wiped out. But as Pavini is quick to point out, unexpected expenses pop up all the time. When they do, having some money set aside means you won't end up pulling out your credit card. "Saving is really going to save you," Pavini said.

Even if you're just stashing a few extra dollars a month, your savings will add up over time. To really maximize your savings, Pavini recommends also putting away a portion of any extra cash you get throughout the year, like your tax return, a bonus, or any gift money.

Automating your savings can be a pretty painless way to save a little extra without really noticing it. Some banks offer services that round up all your purchases to the nearest dollar and automatically transfer the "change" into your savings. You might also want to check out apps like Digit that keep an eye on your spending habits and automatically transfer small amounts into savings for you.

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8. Spending too much on monthly bills that seem like they're set in stone — but are actually negotiable.

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Pavini likes to say, "Before you make any payment on any bill, it's worth it to say, 'How can I lower that bill?'" She recommends calling service providers, like your phone, internet, or cable, and talking to them about your options for lowering your bill. Especially if you've been paying that bill for a long time, customer service might be able to help you get discounts or enroll in a cheaper plan. (Speaking of cheaper plans, check out these ways to save on your phone bill.)

Pavini also recommends reaching out to your credit card company to ask about lowering your interest rates. "Right now, lenders are more gracious than ever because they know people have been hit. If you're ever going to get your interest rate lowered, now's the time."

And while we're on bills, you might get a little more out of making your monthly payments with Experian Boost. It's totally free and it adds your regular bill payments to your credit report, which can result in an instant credit score bump. If you're worried about your credit, it's definitely worth a try.

9. Thinking you have to tough out hard times on your own.

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There are so many ways to save more and spend less, but the truth is sometimes you just need help. If you're really struggling, it's absolutely worth it to look into programs that can help you get back on your feet.

For tackling out-of-control credit card debt (think not being able to make minimum payments or using one credit card to pay for another), Pavini recommends going to a nonprofit consumer credit counseling service. These organizations can help you make a personalized plan to pay down debt while also providing financial education and help with budgeting. To make sure you're picking a legit org, check out these credit counseling guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission.

And if you currently unemployed and looking for work, organizations like Dress for Success and Career Gear offer donated interview outfits and career counseling to folks who qualify for aid.

Whatever you're currently dealing with, there's a way to get help. You don't have to go it alone.

10. Not making room in your budget for fun.

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You might think that getting serious about your budget = deprivation, but that definitely doesn't have to be the case. Instead, make sure that you're setting aside money for the things that make you happy, even if some people might see them as "frivolous." You can still treat yourself on a budget, and it feels soooo much better knowing that your finances are actually under control.

Got money on your mind? Check out more of our personal finance posts.

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