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Overhead view of frustrated Hispanic man paying bills
Overhead view of frustrated Hispanic man paying bills
Terry Vine—Getty Images/Blend Images

Three-fourths of Americans say they have financial regrets, according to a new survey. We commonly regret not saving enough for retirement, spending too much on credit cards, and taking on excessive student loan debt. Here are the details about what Americans regret and how you can avoid those regrets down the road.

Americans’ top regrets

When asked what their biggest financial regret was, here’s what the respondents said:

Keep in mind that these are the overall results; within individual age groups, these results varied significantly. As you may expect, older Americans regret not saving more for retirement, while millennials’ biggest regret is carrying too much student loan debt.

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How to avoid these regrets

The hands-down best way to avoid financial regret is to make saving a priority.

If you’re not saving for retirement yet, then start as soon as possible. The earlier you start, the less you need to save in order to achieve your financial goals. If you start saving and investing for retirement at 35, then you’ll need to save about $816 per month to retire with $1 million at age 65, assuming 7% annualized investment returns. If you start at 30, then that monthly requirement drops to $560. And if you have the foresight to start at 25, you’ll only need to set aside $388 a month to retire a millionaire.

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Calculator: How much will I need to save for retirement?

If your employer offers a 401(k) or a similar retirement plan with a matching contribution, then you need to take advantage of it, because that free money from your employer could help you reach or exceed your goal well ahead of schedule. If not, then a traditional or Roth IRA is the way to go, because it will offer the same tax advantages of a 401(k).

Once you put money into a retirement account, investing doesn’t need to be too complicated. If you have the time and desire to research individual stocks, go for it. If not, there’s nothing wrong with choosing a few low-cost index funds. In fact, Warren Buffett has said several times that the best investment choice for most people is a low-cost S&P 500 index fund, like the Vanguard 500 Index Fund ETF .

Before they start saving for retirement, however, everyone needs to have anemergency fund. A study by the Federal Reserve found that about half of Americans couldn’t cover an unexpected $400 expense without borrowing the money or selling something. That’s a huge problem, because for people who don’t have a financial cushion to fall back on, sudden and unexpected expenses can be devastating. Experts generally recommend an emergency fund that will cover six months’ worth of your living expenses, though every bit you can save up will help to soften the blow of financial emergencies. If you can set aside say, $50 per month, then you’ll be prepared for most unexpected expenses in no time.

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Once you have a retirement savings plan in place and are building up an emergency fund, the best thing you can do is spend less than you make. By forming a realistic budget and sticking to it (including housing), you can avoid getting trapped in a never-ending cycle of credit card debt or buying more house than you need.

Finally, for both types of savings, it’s a great idea to make the process automatic. When I was first starting out, I set up a recurring $50 automatic deposit from my checking account to my brokerage account. Figure out an amount you’re comfortable with and treat it like a payroll deduction — that is, money you can’t spend on other things. Similarly, you can automatically set up a transfer from your checking account to savings in order to build up your emergency fund.

The bottom line

Avoiding financial regrets boils down to a simple philosophy: Spend less than you make and save the rest. As long as you follow this simple yet often disregarded principle, you should have a regret-free financial future.

Matthew Frankel has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.