We all have things that we’d like to do in life. Have kids, travel, get married, buy a new home, start our own business, or simply retire well (and maybe early). You probably have your own dreams that aren’t on this list. Whatever it is you want to do, chances are it takes money.
The thing is, there are lots of things in this world that will take your money and hold it hostage, keeping you from achieving your dreams. These hostage-takers take control of your money, leaving you with little or no wiggle room to make your money work for you. Some of the things that will hold your money hostage over your lifetime aren’t entirely within your control. You might lose a job and be out of work for months, preventing you from saving as you should. Or you might discover that your spouse is cheating on you and end up in an expensive divorce. Or the market might tank and leave you way behind in your investing goals.
But many would-be-hostage takers can be avoided, or at least planned around. You can see ’em coming. And some things don’t have to actually touch your money to hold it hostage. They can cause so much fear in your heart that you end up putting your dreams on hold because you just can’t stand to take the risk. Here are twenty-five things that will hold your money hostage and prevent you from achieving your goals.
There is so much about healthcare that can hold your money hostage that it’s hard to know where to begin. First, there is the obvious cost of procedures. If you have a health problem, you can quickly end up in debt even if you have “good” insurance. To that end, do the best you can to stay healthy and accident-free. Eat well, drive safely, don’t engage in risky behavior, exercise, and get your preventative screenings. You may still get hit with big bills, but you can at least try to reduce the odds.
Second, there’s the cost of insurance. If you’re lucky, your employer will provide you a plan but if not, you’ll have to get your own. While the new healthcare law in the U.S. has yet to fully play out, it may be easier and less costly to buy your own policy if you have to. But don’t go without insurance because, as noted above, even simple procedures can wipe you out, let alone a major illness. Again, keeping yourself healthy can help with the cost because plans are often cheaper for those in good health.
Third, there’s the fact that many people will not leave jobs they hate, or which are low paying, because they fear losing insurance. Again, the new laws may help somewhat with this, but staying in a job just for the insurance can cost you a lot of money and cause a lot of heartache over time. Staying somewhere that you hate, or which isn’t good for your mental or physical health just for the insurance can be counterproductive. You have insurance and that’s great, but if you’re racking up doctor’s bills and prescriptions for stuff that’s job-related, it may be better to go elsewhere. And if you stay in a job rather than take the risk of going somewhere where the pay or experience might be better, you could be leaving significant money and fun on the table.
Healthcare is a tricky hostage taker in so many ways. Don’t just blindly assume that there’s nothing you can do about it, though. Take steps to improve your health, look for less expensive coverage, and don’t automatically assume that you’re trapped in a crappy job just because it offers insurance.
Anything with a contract
Any time you sign a contract, you are putting your money in a hostage situation. You cannot stop paying that fee until the contract is over. If you need or want to use the money for something else in the meantime, you’re out of luck. If you can get out of the contract, expect to pay stiff penalties for doing so. Whether it’s for TV service, cell phone service, a gym membership, or a vehicle lease, any kind of contract takes control of your money out of your hands and gives it to the contract company.
You wouldn’t think there would be anything bad about having a guaranteed source of income for your retirement. However, if you really dislike the job that’s going to give you the pension, you’re putting your dreams and enjoyment of life on hold for a payoff that may be far in the future (if it ever comes at all, since so many pensions are going bankrupt these days or you could die before you get it). Even if you like the job, if you hang onto it instead of doing something you like more, or taking that big leap of faith and going out on your own (assuming you have that dream), you’re letting the pension dictate your life.
I know someone who worked a “pension job” and hated every minute of it, yet he had skills that were in demand in all sorts of industries. All he did was mentally mark the days off in his head until he could retire. He was afraid to leave that job because he was afraid that he couldn’t handle his retirement any other way. He wasted the prime of his life doing a job he hated for a pension. Had he been less afraid or more independently minded, he could have chucked that job, gotten one he liked more, and used their 401K or his own IRA to fund his retirement.
Paying more than you have to for anything
Over your lifetime, you will have to pay for many goods and services. You should always try to pay the lowest price possible. This may mean shopping for sales, negotiating a lower price, or using coupons and discounts. Sure, there are times when you just have to pay full price, but it shouldn’t be your first resort. Think of all the money that you lose when you simply pay your car insurance bill year after year without ever shopping to see if another provider has a lower price or better coverage. Or the money you waste when you don’t negotiate with your cable provider for a lower price. Most things can be found at a discount and every penny you save is money that’s free to work toward your larger goals.
There are times when debt is unavoidable. You likely can’t pay cash for a house, for example. But credit card debt, loans for “stuff,” payday loans, home equity loans (these are bad because they hold your home equity hostage, taking away a good portion of you retirement nest egg), excessive car debt, or excessive education debt all take money away from you. Sometimes for decades. When you want to put money toward retirement or opening your own business, you can’t because it’s all going to debt. Debt is the ultimate money hostage taker. Not only is your money committed elsewhere, you’re paying even more money in the form of interest every month. Further, most of the “stuff” you’re paying for is so far in your rearview mirror that you don’t even remember what you racked up that credit card to buy.
Yes, there are times when short-term storage makes sense. If you’re moving around, or if someone has just died and you’ve inherited their stuff, short-term storage can give you a chance to get everything sorted out. It’s long-term storage that’s a hostage taker. Month after month of paying those fees takes money away from other goals such as investing or travel. Why do you have all that stuff? Some people don’t even remember they have the storage unit in the first place since the bill pay is automated. Think long and hard about getting rid of it to get out of the monthly payment.
Cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, drugs and any other addiction you might have is sucking money away from other goals every week, month, and year. And the addiction doesn’t have to be a physical one. Many people are “addicted” to buying stuff. Maybe it’s comic books, shoes, video games, or clothes. They may claim to be a collector but for some it’s really an addiction. Get help if you need it, but free your money from the addiction hostage taker.
Paying for stuff you don’t need
Every time you buy something you don’t need (or get talked into paying for more than you need), you’re giving money away. Whether it’s a candy bar form the vending machine or getting talked into adding all of the premium channels on your TV package, paying for things you don’t need leeches money away from other things you need or really want. They may seem small at the time, but a lifetime of buying more than you need adds up to a lot of money lost. Ask yourself “Do I need this?” before any purchase. Doing so will keep more money in your pocket for the things you do need.
Too much house/too many houses
There are several ways that owning “too much house” can hold your money and your dreams hostage. The first is the mortgage, which would be similar to Debt, above. If the payments leave you with nothing to save, you’re not going to be able to do other things you might want to do in life. Insurance and taxes are other big hostage takers. The more house you have, the higher these two payments go, to the detriment of a lot of other things you might do with the money.
But beyond these obvious culprits, you can have the problem of having invested too much into improvements of your house. That’s fine if you can afford it but if you have to sell, your house is going to be the most expensive one in the neighborhood and tough to unload without taking a loss on all those improvements you’ve made. You have the same problem if you have the largest house in the neighborhood because largest usually equals “most expensive.”
Finally, you can have the problem of having too many houses. I don’t mean that you literally own three houses, although that can be a problem if you can’t sell. I’m talking about people who move around a lot. Either they’re never satisfied with the house or they have to move a lot for work. Moving is expensive and when you’re constantly paying closing costs, moving fees, appraisal fees, and realtor fees, you’re taking a lot of your available cash and tying it up in moving costs. Home ownership isn’t for everyone so think long and hard about what you want and if you need a house.
Education is a great thing. But too many people get a useless education and go into debt to do it. A useless education comes in two main forms: First, pursuing something that doesn’t interest you because it’s “hot” or someone else thought you should is useless. Why? Because if you hate the field, chances are you’ll never use the degree and either end up back in school for something else, or drifting into other jobs and fields where you cannot advance or earn as much (since you don’t have the education to go with it).
Second, a useless education is anything you never use or finish. Maybe you think that getting that Master’s Degree will get you a better job, but then right out of school you decide you’d rather move to a commune and live off the land. That education and the money that went into it is now lost. Or you start that degree program and then quit after two years, not because you didn’t enjoy the field but because it was “too hard.” All that money is gone. If you start over in something else, you’ll be throwing more money at the problem.
The point is that before pursuing any education, make sure that you will get something out of it and that you’re not wasting money on something you don’t want, can’t do, or aren’t committed to. Education can be expensive and can lead to debt, so make sure whatever you’re chasing will pay off for you in the long run and not leave you with no money and nothing to show for it.
Kids can be a blessing, but they are expensive. If you decide to have kids, you have to understand that you are tying up a great portion of your saving power for the next eighteen (or longer) years. A lot of money that could be used to help you retire early, start a business, travel, or pay off debt will go to raising the kids. Make sure you’re okay with that before you reproduce. There’s nothing wrong with deciding that you’d rather not have kids so you can retire at age forty and chase your dreams. And there’s nothing wrong with deciding you really want kids, even if that means you have to work until you’re seventy. Different strokes for different folks, just make sure you understand your choices.
Too little savings
Having too little savings limits your freedom. When there’s nothing in the bank, you can’t weather an emergency well, much less plan anything like a nice vacation or quitting your job to volunteer for a year. Having savings gives you options. Without a solid savings plan, you will always be reacting to life rather than planning and living out your dreams.
Too much car
As with having too much house, having too much car can tie up your money in ways that may not be immediately obvious. Beyond the crushing payments, there are higher taxes and insurance costs. And if you ever try to get out from under this crushing load, you’ll have a hard time because you won’t be able to sell the car for what you owe.
Working for “the man”
Corporate jobs come with an (illusive) feeling of security. You probably get benefits and a guaranteed paycheck. But there are also limitations. You can only earn what the boss says you can earn and probably no overtime if you put in extra work. Benefits may be cut or eliminated. And in tough economic times, you can be laid off. There is also a problem of work/life balance and you may find yourself fired if you have to take too much personal time. These things result in lost wages and lost potential earnings, money that could have gone to feather your retirement nest egg or fund a sabbatical year.
Working for yourself certainly isn’t for everyone, but it does give you the chance to call the shots. You can earn as much as you can based on how hard you’re willing to work. If times get tough, you can hustle for more clients or diversify your business into a more profitable area. And if you need to take some personal time, you can do it without fear of getting fired. Over a lifetime, working for yourself can put more money in your pocket than working for the boss man. But only if you’re committed to it and self-motivated.
Not asking for a raise/promotion
If you do work for “the man,” you could be leaving money on the table by not asking for a raise or a promotion. Imagine that you found out you could have been earning an extra $5,000 per year for the last five years. Wouldn’t that money have been useful? Sometimes the boss may say that there is no money for raises this year, but if you point out your contributions and value to the company you may get one anyway. And some places just don’t bring it up at all, leaving many workers to just assume there are no raises. They figure, “Hey, if the workers aren’t demanding more money, why would we voluntarily offer it up?” If you ask, though, you may receive. A promotion may come with an automatic raise, or at least a better job title that may help you if you go searching for a higher paying job elsewhere. You never know until you ask. Be polite and professional and see what happens. The worst they say is, “No” and even then, there are still more alternatives you can suggest that still leave you better off in the long run.
You have to tread carefully with hobbies. Many can be a wonderful alternative to more expensive entertainments and some can be used to make extra cash. But when hobbies become too expensive, they can put other dreams and goals at risk. Just ask the wife of a golfer who blows money every week on greens fees and new clubs at the expense of a joint vacation or savings contributions. Or ask the husband of a woman who blows $100 every week on crafting supplies at the expense of a joint hobby or larger goal like new appliances. Sometimes, a hobby can cross over into an addiction (as is the case when someone must collect every comic, for example, or own every BluRay). Hobbies can be fun, but they can also be dangerous to your other goals.
Whether it’s investing in stocks when they’re at their peak, or buying everything at full retail price, buying high can take money out of your pocket. Your goal is to buy when things are at their lowest prices. People flee the market when it goes down, but that’s the time to pick up shares at fire sale prices. Some people equate using coupons or waiting for sales as some kind of poverty indicator, but it’s just smart to buy things when prices are low.
Indulging in lifestyle inflation
The car that was fine last year suddenly looks shabby. The clothes that were good two months ago need to be replaced with nicer ones. The house that was great for the last five years suddenly needs new granite countertops and a pool. As income increases (and often even if it doesn’t), people tend to upgrade their lives. And a little of that is okay. It’s nice to occasionally spend your hard earned money on something better or nicer. But when this becomes an everyday thing, it’s a problem that takes your money and ties it up into ever more expensive items. Enough of it and you end up in debt. There’s nothing wrong with keeping things as they are if they are still presentable and functional. That car may not be the newest, but does it still get you to work? Is the house still comfortable and safe even if it’s not a candidate for HGTV? If so, consider resisting the urge to constantly upgrade and improve. Stand pat and pocket the money so you can do other things you want more.
Failing to consider the true cost of ownership
Everything has a cost of ownership (COO). Whether it’s maintenance, repair, upgrades, add-ons, extras like insurance or fuel, storage space, or end-of-life disposal fees, nothing comes without some additional strings. The higher the COO, the more money the item is holding hostage over its lifetime. Limit your buying of high COO items accordingly.
Failing to consider opportunity cost
Everything you buy has an opportunity cost. The money you spend on Thing A is now unavailable to be spent on Thing B, C, or D. If you buy that new cell phone today for $200, that’s $200 that you won’t have for savings, for that new dryer you know you’re going to need, or to put toward that vacation you’ve been dreaming of. If you just blindly spend without considering the other options that you are foregoing, you are always wondering why you can’t afford the things you really want in life. Buying without considering the opportunity cost takes your money and ties it up in things that you don’t really want or need, leaving you less for what you do need and want.
Any fee that you don’t absolutely have to pay is a hostage taker. Shop around for banks that offer free checking. Be careful not to overdraw your account so you avoid bounced check fees. Don’t speed so you don’t get hit with speeding tickets. Return your library books on time so you don’t have to pay the fine. Pay your bills on time so you don’t get hit with late fees. Every time you pay a fee that you could (and should) have avoided, that’s more money taken away from your other goals.
Lack of education
A useless education can waste money, but a complete lack of education can cost you money. A college graduate can earn up to twice a much as a high school graduate. Those with advanced degrees can earn more. And don’t even think about dropping out of high school. A college graduate earns three times more than a high school dropout. A dropout might earn an average annual income of $20,000 per year. Since that’s an average, there are a lot of people earning below that line.
College may not be for everyone, but it can certainly increase your earning potential. If you don’t want to go to college, at least become trained in a skilled trade where earning potential is higher than in the service industries (which is where many high school grads end up). Or get a two year degree in a practical field. Over a lifetime, that degree or advanced training can give you a lot more money to pursue your other goals.
Ignoring the power of compounding
When the financial advisers beg you to start saving at young age, they aren’t doing it for their health. Money that is saved over the long term earns more than equal amounts saved for shorter terms. That’s thanks to the magic of compounding. So, for example, the money you save in your twenties gains interest/dividends over a period of forty years until your retire. If you start saving a similar amount in your fifties, you’ll never catch up because the money just doesn’t have as long to grow. This can make a huge difference in the amount of money you have available when you retire. Starting late and forgetting about compounding hands thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of dollars over to the hostage takers.
Ignoring the value of your time
Your time is the most precious asset you have. When you waste time on things that don’t move you and your goals forward, your giving not only money to the hostage takers, but joy and a richer life experience as well. When you mindlessly surf channels instead of working on your business plan or great novel, for example, you’re wasting time that could be leading you toward greater earnings and a better life. When you surf the internet for hours instead of brushing up on a skill that could net you a promotion, you’re missing an opportunity to increase your earning power. When you play games on your cell phone or text less important people instead of engaging with your family, you’re wasting time with them that you can’t get back. A lifetime of wasted time can leave hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table, result in missed opportunities, and leave you with plenty of regrets. It may not seem like much at the time, but every wasted minute is money and life wasted.
Ignoring the IRS
The IRS wants its share of your income. Whether that means paying self-employment taxes, paying what you owe at the end of each year, reporting the money you pay to anyone you hire, or paying on money you take out of investments, you’ve got to pay up. If you don’t, they will eventually come after you and the penalties will be steep. They can garnish your wages for years until they get what you owe them. If you think you’re being smart by dodging them, you’re wrong. Just pay up (or admit that you can’t and get on a payment plan with them) because paying all the penalties will break you and take money away from you for years.
You don’t have to hand your money over to many of these would be hostage takers. If you think carefully and are smart with your money, you can avoid a lot of them. When you do, you’ll have a lot more money available for the thing you really want out of life and a lot more wiggle room when things get difficult. You won’t be looking at all of the money you could have had but which is now under someone else’s control.
(Photo courtesy of Mike Renlund)