What I wish I’d known: 5 people discuss their biggest money mistakes and what they learnt
Broken budgets, missed payments, lost cards, payday splurges — we’ve all made mistakes when it comes to our money. It’s pretty much part and parcel of modern living.
Looking back, I can pinpoint so many small moments — organisational mishaps like booking a flight a day later than intended, forgetting a railcard and having to pay for a ticket twice, overspending on an outfit I didn’t need and so on. These mistakes are frustrating, sometimes stressful in the moment, but generally feel more like tripping over my own feet than a catastrophe.
The bigger mistakes are the emotional ones. These are the errors that really stick with me, even years later. They are ones that I’ve learnt from and taken time to process and overcome.
A lesson in sensitivity
Personally, the most poignant mistakes are the lessons I learnt in my early twenties — particularly those awkward conversations in which I realised just how differently we all think and feel towards our finances.
One particular night sticks with me, because it revealed just how easy it is to put a foot in it when discussing money. On this occasion, we’d had a lovely evening out at a restaurant in west London and were warm with wine and good company. However, when the bill arrived, I suggested we split everything equally. One of my friends disagreed because they’d had less to drink, another asked them not to be difficult. A simple discussion about who should pay what dissolved into an increasingly acrimonious debate. Sides were taken. And by the time we were paid up, tempers were frayed, grudges had formed, and it took months for us to properly resolve things.
As a money mistake, it realistically cost about £45 — but it was a lesson in sensitivity and assumptions around personal finance. No matter how close friends might be or how similar we may think our lifestyles are, we cannot presume everyone has the same approach or attitude towards spending. It’s essential to listen and respect each other’s boundaries.
Speaking to others about their money mistakes, it’s clear that the emotional landscape surrounding our finances is certainly key to what we remember as genuinely problematic — and that it is these lessons we most want to pass on, rather than blips in budgets or misspent pennies.
Here are four more stories from people on the mistakes they’ve made and hope we all can learn from.
Not having insurance
As a strategy director at a creative agency, Heloise says a lot of her struggles with money relate to self-confidence. She blames a lack of money confidence for not pushing for pay rises earlier and for a number of missed opportunities in terms of investments, shares, and savings.
“I’ve never felt very good with numbers, even though I’m actually really good with saving money and keeping to a budget. It’s a weird one because on the one hand I’m clearly not bad with money but I have this voice in my head that tells me that I am. It’s meant I’ve not gone for pay rises or felt comfortable haggling for more money on projects too. If it hadn’t been for the general bumps in pay progression as you get promoted, I’d probably still be on a starter salary.”
When asked about where she thinks this lack of confidence comes from, Heloise suggested that it was probably partly to do with a lack of financial education but also a significant, negative experience when she was at university.
“When I was at Nottingham, my flat was burgled. All of us had stuff nicked — laptops, cameras, jewellery and stuff. None of us had insurance. It was so expensive and meant that for the rest of the year I really struggled because I had to do all my work in the library whilst saving for a new computer. It also just really shook me because I’d consciously decided it was better to save money and not get contents insurance despite my mum’s suggestions that I did so. Nowadays, I’m just way more cautious and always overthink stuff. I think it shook my confidence in my financial decisions, if that makes sense, and it’s taken me a few years to really build my confidence again.”
Lending to a friend
“I would say there are a lot of different moments that stand out as financial missteps,” Andrew explains over Zoom. He and his partner live a comfortable but not extravagant life in Edinburgh with their two cats. He’s worked in property for 11 years and says that he’s learnt a lot through his financial mistakes.
“I’ve invested in the wrong stocks, failed to diversify my portfolio at the right time, overspent on projects that haven’t panned out and lots of stuff like that. Most of the time, I’d say these were learning curves. Many of my wrong decisions early on have meant that I’ve not made the same mistake twice, listening to better advice and not jumping into opportunities without thinking.”
However, the mistake that sticks with him the most was a much more personal story. “I loaned some money to an old friend. He was going through a hard time and I wanted to help out. A few months later he still hadn’t paid the money back and it completely soured our friendship as he accused me of nagging and then ghosted me when I asked again. It wasn’t a huge amount, a few hundred pounds, but even after he finally did pay me back part of the cash, things just weren’t the same. I can’t imagine ever lending to a friend again.”
Not being financially independent
Nuala was super excited to start her new life in London after finishing university. Her boyfriend was a couple of years older and already lived in the city, so she moved in with him and says that’s when the trouble began in terms of her money.
“I relied on him from the beginning to sort out all of our money. It was his flat and paid him my part of the rent, and we used a joint account for almost everything including my salary. I had my own bank account that I barely used, and I didn’t have any of my own savings,” she explains. “It wasn’t really a problem at the time, but we broke up a few months after I moved, and it was so hard to work out what was mine because all of it had been ‘ours’.
“Now I’m so careful about having my own accounts and paying attention to my money. I was lucky that we broke up amicably and my ex was really good about working everything out with me financially, because it so easily could have gone wrong. I can’t imagine ever being that flippant in a relationship again.”
Rushing into redevelopment
Buying a house can be stressful — especially when it’s your first. Jackie describes how overwhelmed and emotional she felt as the house went from exchange to completion.
“I was elated. Everything was a bigger emotion than I was used to feeling. It had taken so long and was such a big purchase, I was so thrilled but also my husband and I were just done with the whole process by the time it went through. We were exhausted. But one of the reasons we’d bought the house was as a fixer-upper. We wanted to make it our perfect home. So almost as soon as we had the keys we were like ‘right, let’s do this’ and launched right into renovating. It was the worst idea we’ve ever had.
“We bit off way more than we could chew — logistically, financially, emotionally — we decided to just redo everything at once, which was a huge mistake. We gutted our kitchen and the downstairs rooms and the bathrooms upstairs. We hired a guy who turned out to be utterly unreliable, so we had to get someone else. We ended up spending way more than we could afford and even though the house looks pretty good now, it’s not really done the way we wanted because in the end we had to cut our losses. It’s bittersweet now that it’s all done.”
Jackie says she wishes they’d taken their time, taken a step back and approached it more thoughtfully and with less rush. “We just didn’t know enough about this kind of stuff. Like watching Grand Designs doesn’t make you a renovation expert, you know? If I could tell my past-self one thing it would be to stop, take a breath, speak to more experts, and approach things so much less emotionally. It would have saved a lot of money and spared a lot of arguments.”
Authors: Harriet Allner and ikigai
Harriet Allner is a writer, blogger and fintech specialist. She cares about stories that matter and is passionate about promoting conversation around money positivity and financial feminism.
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