'I stash cash where my wife can't find it': America's juiciest money secrets, as told to CNBC

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When asked what their biggest money secret is, participants in the new CNBC and Acorns Invest In You Savings Survey spilled the beans in two different ways: Some shared a secret savings or investing tip that they’ve found helpful, while others — reading the question differently — ‘fessed up to a secret money shame, something they are embarrassed, or regretful, about when it comes to their finances.

From bad lottery habits to daily inventory taking, here’s a look at some of Americans’ most helpful, alarming and surprising money secrets.

The survey, conducted for CNBC and Acorns by SurveyMonkey in March, polled more than 2,300 adults about various aspects of financial wellness.

We wouldn’t know it from looking at you … or asking … but you have nothing saved, you’re up to your ears in credit card and student loan debt, and you are one missed payday away from losing everything.

You’re not alone: Despite 100 months of uninterrupted job growth in the U.S., 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, according to employment website CareerBuilder.com, and only 40% would be able to cover a $1,000 emergency expense.

We got a lot of answers along these lines, including: “I don’t have enough for essentials,” “I don’t have much” and “I’m just scraping by.” In our survey, 17% of respondents said meeting daily expenses is their biggest financial worry.

If there’s one bad habit sure to drive your financial adviser crazy, it’s your love of lottery tickets or casino gaming. Sure, you’re more likely to get struck by lighting — twice — than win the lottery, but no matter: This is another secret money shame (definitely not a tip!) you share with a lot of other people.

A recent study by Vancouver, British Columbia-based Vision Critical found that almost 50% of Americans regularly play the lottery, while the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries reports that we spent a collective $80.5 billion on lottery tickets in 2016.

This one is a great idea.

Who doesn’t know someone with a big jug or a coffee can full of pennies at home? Some people save up until their piggy bank is full and then run to the bank or local Coinstar machine to convert all that change into cold, hard cash or gift cards, but another option could be an online investing app.

Investors using these new smartphone-based tools can, among other things, choose to have their extra “spare change” from purchases rounded up to the next dollar and invested in a portfolio tailored to their time horizon and needs, putting the power of compound interest to work from the get-go. And there are a lot of savers out there: In thesurvey, a majority of respondents said they considered themselves savers (56%) rather than spenders (40%).

This answer — well, the general sentiment rather than the specifics — was more common than you’d think.

More typical, and less dramatic, phrasing ran along the lines of “I give more away than I make to help others” or “My problem is trying to help others and getting stuck.” On the other side of the equation, one survey participant reported that her sister “gave us $5,000 to help with the down payment on our house.”

The “airplane oxygen mask rule” applies down here on terra firma, too: You have to put your own mask on first before helping to put one on someone else. In other words, you can’t be of any long-term help to others unless your own finances are in order.

Apart from properly handling financial requests from loved ones, also keep an eye out for scam-happy strangers. Every year around this time, phone fraudsters posing as the IRS try to bilk taxpayers out of hard-earned cash.

Remember: The IRS will never phone or email you to ask for personal information such as Social Security numbers.

Like setting your alarm clock 10 minutes fast so you don’t oversleep, pretending that you have less money than you actually do might seem ridiculous or impossible — but can actually work.

Other popular survey answers that fall into this category were “I have some money from my paycheck sent to another account immediately” and “I save before I see the money, so that I’m not tempted.”

Setting up regular automatic deposits into a savings account that’s hard to access — say, a high-interest savings account at an online bank for which you’ve cut up the debit card — can make it easier to “set and forget” all those savings. You could also invest a thousand or two in an untouchable CD, and (forcibly) forget about that cash until it matures, too.

The power of positive thinking? Or a lot of hooey?

Truth be told, there’s something to be said about having a constructive, productive mindset when it comes to your finances. Rather than endlessly ruminate over your money woes — while doing nothing to address them — start thinking of ways you can dig yourself out of the hole, even if at first it’s by the spoonful, rather than the shovelful.

Regarding money mindsets, in the CNBC and Acorns survey, among five choices of traditional sayings, 33% said they most identified with “money can’t buy you happiness,” 29% liked “a penny saved is a penny earned,” 18% preferred “you can’t take it with you,” and 17% took to be “careful not to be penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

The truth hurts, but there’s no better way to avoid fees, finance charges and debt-induced fear than paying in full for any purchases you make. That could mean always paying in cash on the spot or, more commonly, paying off your entire credit card bill each month.

Related survey answers included “I pay as fast and early as I can” and “Cash is king.” In the survey, 83% of respondents said they’d rather wait to buy a nonessential “splurge” item they wanted until they’d saved enough to pay in cash, compared with 14% who’d put it on plastic.

If you’re plunking down $3 or more a day on fancy coffee drinks, you can afford to instead put that $21 a week into a high-yield savings account, Roth individual retirement account, 401(k) plan or other investment vehicle. Socking away that $90 or so a month could add up to almost $1,100 a year saved instead of sipped … and hopefully growing, thanks to compound interest. Just brew your own at home!

In the CNBC and Acorns survey, only 7% of respondents said they’d splurge with a $5,000 bonus; the remainder said they’d pay off debt, save for emergencies or education, or catch up on overdue bills. Whether it’s three grand or three bucks, spend your money wisely.

A good way to start the day is to actually open that traditional checkbook, if you have one, or log into your bank or other financial institution website to check balances, and review purchases and other transactions from the last 24 hours.

This reminder can help you stay on your budgetary track, sound a warning bell or even make you feel good about sound financial choices you’ve made. Again, on a related note, in the survey, a majority of respondents said they considered themselves savers (56%) rather than spenders (40%).

This is another kind of statement that was more common among survey respondents than financial advisors would hope.

The CNBC and Acorns Invest In You Savings Survey found that 24% of respondents were either somewhat less confident or much less confident about their ability to save for retirement, compared with three years ago. And for 23% of participants, being able to save enough for retirement is their biggest money worry.

That jibes with findings in a recent Bankrate study, which found 21% of earners are not saving anything out of each paycheck for retirement. That’s more than 1 in 5 Americans.

Given the demise of the company pension and a hazy future for Social Security, they’re taking a big risk regarding their future. Just 16% of Americans are saving more than 15% of their annual income for retirement. Experts generally recommend putting aside 10% to 20% of pay.

You may have a hobby or untapped skill that you can put to work for your savings. Love dogs and work from home? Think about dog-walking your neighbors’ pooches during the day; you’ll earn cash and get to stretch your legs.

From driving for ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft to part-time catering and tax-time accounting, more and more Americans are starting side gigs to put a dent in their debt and sock away a little dinero, too. Today’s more active and mobile retirees are also getting in the game, with everything from second careers based on long-held but ignored passions to part-time jobs taken simply to earn extra money.

This kind of answer popped up surprisingly often.

Other takes included “I stash cash behind the kids’ pictures on the wall” and “I hide money everywhere.” Maybe it’s the afterburn of the Great Recession of 2008-2009, but some people still keep a lot of cash on hand rather than investing it in the market or saving it in a high-interest savings account.

In fact, in the survey, 22% of respondents said they’d put an unexpected $5,000 bonus to use by … doing nothing with it and, instead, saving it for “short-term expenditures or emergencies.” That roll of bills under the mattress may be handy, but by not having that money in the bank or market, you’re not only missing out on potential interest earned but also risk losing the cash.

Ouch. This is a big money — not to mention marital — no-no.

So-called financial infidelity is one of the biggest factors in breakups. Marriage and money seem like inseparable topics; two pessimistic survey participants even cited “don’t get married” and “don’t let your spouse spend it all” as their secret money tips.

In the CNBC survey, only 16% of respondents said they regard their spouse as a financial role model, 27% almost never discuss personal finances with family members and fewer than half (45%) make financial decisions in partnership with their another household member.

More from Invest in You:
Tony Robbins: Is the financial freedom game still winnable?
Saving early is the greatest gift you can give yourself
Boost your financial IQ by answering these 10 questions

Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

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