Don’t be fooled by these 9 common money myths, finance gurus say

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It can be hard to separate financial fact from fiction.

CNBC polled eight personal finance experts to help answer one question: What are the biggest money myths out there for consumers?

Here are 9 of the top fallacies the financial gurus debunked.

Myth #1: Giving up a daily coffee purchase is a financial game-changer

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You’ve likely heard this refrain: Buying that daily cup of coffee is killing your chances at burgeoning retirement wealth.

But savers don’t need to be so extreme or austere with their money decisions to be financially successful, said Douglas Boneparth, a certified financial planner and member of CNBC’s Advisor Council.

Sacrificing small expenses that bring us joy isn’t nearly as critical as big decisions like choosing where to live or what car to drive, for example, said Boneparth, president and founder of Bone Fide Wealth.

“Of course, every penny counts,” Boneparth said. “But [housing and transportation] have the ability to change outcomes a lot more than skipping your cup of coffee.”

“Going through our entire existence without some level of joy seems like a little bit of a waste,” he added. “At the same time, there does need to be some discipline and consistency in giving yourself a shot at your financial goals.”

So, consider your budget for discretionary expenses and think about which purchases you want to prioritize.

Myth #2: Auto dealers give you the best rate on a loan

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Car buyers often believe that when they finance a purchase through the dealership, the dealer is getting the best rate available for them, said Erin Witte, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America, an advocacy group. That may be true sometimes, but it isn’t always.

“What consumers may not know, and what dealers will almost never tell them, is that the dealer is getting paid by the lender to give them their business, and it’s often structured around how high the interest rate is,” Witte said.

Dealers therefore can have an incentive to charge a higher rate because they will also make more money, she said.

“Consumers are much better off going to their own local credit union or bank and shopping that quote around to get their own financing,” Witte said. “This can save hundreds or thousands of dollars over the life of the loan.”

Myth #3: Financial ‘advice’ always has your best interests at heart

There’s a misconception that every financial advisor is a “fiduciary,” said George Kinder, who pioneered the “life planning” branch of financial advice.

“That’s just not true,” he said.

A fiduciary advisor has a legal duty to put your economic and financial interests ahead of their own. Lawyers also have separate fiduciary duties to their clients, and doctors to their patients, for example. But not all financial intermediaries are obligated to serve as a fiduciary with their clients.

“There are many financial advisors that are fiduciaries, and there are many advisors that aren’t,” said Kinder, founder of the Kinder Institute of Life Planning.

It’s important to weigh this point when choosing a financial advisor. You can ask a financial pro if they are a fiduciary before doing business with them.

Myth #4: You must pay for frequent credit report access

This used to be true, but has changed in the Covid era, credit expert John Ulzheimer said.

“The Fair Credit Reporting Act gives us the right to one free credit report every 12 months. That’s where AnnualCreditReport.com came from,” said Ulzheimer, who previously worked at FICO and Equifax, two major players in the credit ecosystem.

“Since Covid started, however, the credit bureaus have essentially unlocked that website and now we can get free copies of our credit reports every week for free,” he said. “Clearly, there is no need to buy them from anywhere if you can get so many from the credit bureaus for free.”

Myth #5: Hiring an advisor only benefits the wealthy

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Holistic financial advice — guidance focused on savings, debt and insurance, in addition to investments — can be worth an income boost of more than 7% a year, said Shlomo Benartzi, a behavioral economist and professor emeritus at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

“Where does that huge gain come from? It comes from eliminating costly mistakes and taking advantage of sure wins,” said Benartzi, who along with Nobel laureate Richard Thaler pioneered the concept of “nudging” investors to boost their savings over time.   

For example, Benartzi said: Many people select the wrong health insurance plan, choosing to pay excessive premiums for slightly smaller deductibles. People often fail to pay down credit cards with the highest interest rates first, wasting money on interest payments. Older workers often fail to maximize their employer match, even though they can withdraw those funds at any time without penalty after age 59½.

“Although households and regulators remain concerned about the cost of financial advice, it’s the absence of holistic financial advice that turns out to be so expensive,” he said.

There are many different fee models for financial advice, and the cost doesn’t have to be significant: Many advisors have hourly or project rates, for example.

Myth #6: Paying off your mortgage early isn’t worth it

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In some ways, this is a math problem, said Brian Portnoy, an expert on the psychology of money and author of “The Geometry of Wealth.”

Conventional thinking holds, where can you get the highest return with your extra money? If your mortgage interest rate exceeds your likely return in the market, it generally makes sense to pay off the mortgage faster.

“There’s a legitimate emotional component to it as well,” said Portnoy, who is also the founder of Shaping Wealth. “Sometimes, people enjoy the sense of owning their homes outright. That’s a valuable psychological asset that should not be sniffed at.”

The conventional wisdom — comparing mortgage rates to investment returns — is also misleading, said Christine Benz, director of personal finance and retirement planning at Morningstar. Paying down a mortgage faster “almost never looks like a great idea” when compared to the stock market, she said.

But a mortgage paydown is akin to a guaranteed “return,” she said. The only fair comparison is to the return in an account that’s similarly guaranteed, such as FDIC-insured investments, said Benz, author of “30-Minute Money Solutions: A Step-by-Step Guide to Managing Your Finances.”

Myth #7: You don’t need emergency savings

“The most egregious myth out there is that folks think they don’t need a stand-alone emergency savings account, when in fact, they do,” said personal finance expert Suze Orman.

These accounts shouldn’t be considered a nest egg or calculated as part of a long-term savings plan for college tuition, a new car or a vacation, for example, Orman said.

Instead, this fund is a safety net tapped only during emergencies — like keeping up with mortgage and car payments if you’re laid off, for example, she said.

Myth #8: You must monitor the stock market daily

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“There is virtually no valuable information in the day-to-day movement of the market,” Portnoy said.

In fact, advisors often warn that focusing on daily market swings can contribute to making moves you’ll later regret, like selling at an inopportune time.

“It can be interesting and even exciting to track the latest,” he added. “However, successful investing is really boring. Articulate your goals, set a plan, build a portfolio and focus on something else.”

Myth #9: Money can make you happiest

Studies have linked money with happiness. But it’s what people do with that money that ultimately makes them happiest, Kinder said.

The application of money toward one’s personal fulfillment is at the core of his life-planning philosophy.

Having extra money in the bank “is always going to make you happier,” Kinder said. But it won’t make you the happiest version of yourself, he said.

“The main money myth is that people think money is what will make their life the most happy,” Kinder said. “If you figure out who you truly want to be, that will make you most happy. Because then you can bring the money to bear on that.”

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