More than three-quarters of Americans feel bad about this investing mistake

Personal Finance

Rene Carillo, 51, regrets not investing more when the stock market dropped.

Rene Carillo

We all have financial regrets. Things we bought, bills we paid late, decisions we didn’t research.

Turns out, according to personal finance site MagnifyMoney, investing brings a host of bad feelings.

The top one is not investing at all, according to research conducted in September and December. MagnifyMoney surveyed 836 people with investment accounts and found an unmistakable pattern: People of all ages second-guessed their earlier decisions around investing.

The most common regrets: not starting to save for retirement earlier (31%) and not investing in stocks sooner (24%). These two hold true no matter the respondent’s age.

Younger respondents (77% of millennials) said they wished they’d started investing earlier. Baby boomers were only slightly less sorry than millennials, at 76%. Even young Gen Z has fear of missing out: Sixty-nine percent of respondents age 18 to 22 said they feel bad about not investing sooner.

Missed the sale

Current expenses seemed more pressing than future retirement to Rene Carillo, now 51, bak when he was in his 20s.

Carillo, a video engineer and personal finance blogger in Miami, started investing in the company 401(k) only up to the match. He joined because a coworker who was about to retire recommended he participate and contribute as much as possible.

Carillo says he is glad he held onto his stocks during the market drop — he remembers seeing his coworkers move into bonds — but wishes he’d turned up his own contribution level during that time. Missing out on the chance to buy shares at low prices was a mistake he still feels bad about.

Cash-out sorrows

DJ Cummins, 37, treated 401(k)s like severance packages whenever he left a job.

Source: DJ Cummins

Your 401(k) has a few thousand dollars in it, an amount that seems considerable. So when you leave your job, you scoop it out and spend it.

That’s what DJ Cummins, 37, did four times.

Since graduating from college, Cummins, who lives in Bethalto, Illinois, and blogs about personal finance, has had several jobs. He didn’t know about rollovers or much about finances in general. “I just knew I didn’t want to leave money behind at my previous employer,” he said.

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The largest balance was $7,000, which he used to buy a rental property. That turned out to be a good decision, he says, but not so the $6,000 he used for a down payment on a car. “I cashed out my retirement in order to take on debt,” he said.

“If I knew then what I know now, I would have rolled each of them over rather than treating them like a bonus when I left a job,” Cummins said.

The plan balances totaled about $20,000, not to mention the potential gains. Given the past 10 years of a bull market, Cummins thinks his retirement money could be as much as six figures higher.

“I’m not even going to do the math,” Cummins said.

Hard to pick

Andrew Chen, 39, still winces when he recalls selling off stocks during the financial crisis.

Source: Andrew Chen

Stock picking didn’t work out for Andrew Chen, 39, a product manager at a San Francisco tech company and personal finance blogger. As an inexperienced investor, he tried his hand at individual stocks before turning to broad-based, passively managed index funds. To make things worse, Chen sold many of the stocks at a loss during the financial crisis and lost about a third of his net wealth.

If he’d used this strategy earlier, Chen says, he would “almost certainly be double-digit percentage points wealthier now.”

Not only is it easier to invest in funds, it’s less stressful. You won’t have to worry about stocks bouncing back when the market dips, Chen says, or wonder if there is some fundamental issue with specific companies. It’s much harder to analyze specific companies for an ordinary person.

“It is very difficult to beat the market in the long run, but very easy to simply match the market,” Chen said. Index funds “allow you to enjoy market-matching returns for zero effort and near-zero cost.”

Discounting small amounts

Tracey Gordon, 58, regrets not saving for retirement in her 20s.

Tracey Gordon

When she was in her 20s, Tracey Gordon, now 58, worked in financial services. Even while surrounded by a wealth of investing knowledge, she was cavalier about saving for her own future.

Several things made retirement saving seem almost beside the point. The amount you could put into a 401(k) — less than $8,000 — wasn’t that large and Gordon remembers thinking it wouldn’t make a difference. She felt she’d have time to focus on retirement later.

Gordon came to rue these decisions — “I had really lost a decade of opportunity,” she said — but luckily started investing in her 30s. “If I had stayed underinvested, I would be in big trouble now,” she added.

Perhaps more important than amassing a lot of money in your 20s is establishing a savings mindset, she says. Compounding is an obvious benefit, but there’s also a behavioral economics component. “If you get into the habit of doing something good for yourself — socking away small amounts early on — the habit stays with you,” Gordon said.

Terrifying headlines

Mike Pearson, 38, regrets not investing in a 401(k) in his 20s

Source: Mike Pearson

Mike Pearson, now 38, was offered the chance to participate in a 401(k) when he started his first real job. He was 26. It was 2008, and he turned it down.

“My fear was based on reading the doomsday headlines in the news day after day,” said Pearson, a personal finance blogger in New York. It felt like the right decision at the time.

The headlines were so terrifying that he was afraid investing would mean losing his hard-earned money.

“That mistake ended up causing me to lose thousands of dollars in potential investment gains,” Pearson said. “Looking back on it now, the decision I made was entirely based on fear.”

Over the years, Pearson learned about natural fluctuations in the market. “Usually, hopefully, after a long enough time horizon, it ends up going up, up and up,” he said.

For him, the lesson is the importance of contributing automatically in his 401(k). “It was that investing mistake back in 2008 that allowed me to reconsider my whole approach on investing,” Pearson said.

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