Don’t Leave Free Money on the Table

leaving free money on the table

We all like free things. Why else would people stand in line two hours for a free pancake? Sometimes wasting our precious time for things that return pennies on the dollar is not a smart idea, but what about legitimate free money being wasted or left on the table. Even if you’ve been guilty of not giving your money the attention it deserves, there is no time better than right now to make changes.

Don’t Get Penalized for Being Late

My daughter got her first quarter report card last week. I don’t expect perfect grades, but one area where I will insist on perfection is with turning in homework. Third graders get a letter grade on report cards for having their homework done on time. It doesn’t matter if it’s done neatly or correctly, it just has to be turned in when it’s due.

I’m always blown away by how many students don’t turn in homework. Yes, I realize that some kids don’t have the stability at home to get any work done, but it’s not just the troubled kids who don’t turn in assignments. This is the easiest A anyone can ever get!

I see this with adults as well. When I owned my optometry practice, we added a finance charge for late payments. Often people had the money but forgot to pay the bill. Maybe $10 or $20 doesn’t seem like a lot, but if you do that twice a month or more, it can add up to hundreds of dollars a year.

No one likes bills, but why pay more than we have to? Set up a bill payment reminder through email, an app, Google calendar, or write it on a sticky note. Whatever method means you won’t be late is the best one to use for making sure you aren’t throwing away money on late fees.

401(k) Matches

This is another area that blows my mind. Almost a quarter of employees who are eligible for matching contributions don’t take advantage of the full amount.  Even when I didn’t max out my retirement account, I knew enough to contribute enough to get the 3% company match. If your employer was going to give you an extra paycheck, would you say no?

It might seem like a stretch to go from investing zero percent of your paycheck to 5% or 10%, but I bet anyone can do 1% or 2%. Remember that 401(k) contributions are pre-tax. Use an online calculator to see how much it really costs to contribute. My guess is less than you think.

Once you get started, make it a goal to increase your percentage every few months or as often as your employer allows, even if it’s only another percent or two. It all adds up over the course of a working career, especially if your employer gives free money in the form of matching contributions.

Not Taking Advantage of Health Savings Accounts or Flexible Spending Accounts

Unless you avoid the doctor or have a Cadillac insurance plan, most people will have some health expenses throughout the year. Just like with monthly bills, none of us likes paying money for being sick or getting poked and prodded, but you really can’t put a price on health.

One way to make the cost of health care more palatable is by using funds from a health savings account or flexible spending account. I won’t get into detail about how both types of accounts work, but basically if you are eligible and are not taking advantage, you could be paying much more than you need to.

Using either type of account can result in significant tax savings, but only when you use them.

Paying Too Much in Investment Fees

I wrote a post a little while ago about how investing fees don’t matter, and I still think that’s true for beginning investors who don’t start saving because the fear of making a mistake is too great. Almost any investment is better than none at all, regardless of fees.

However, for those who have been investing for a while and have gotten too busy lazy to keep track of investment fees, this indifference could cost you. Going from a fund with 3-4% fees to funds with less than 1% in management costs can save thousands of dollars over many years.

If you are unsure of what your investment fund is charging or don’t know if it’s reasonable, consider signing up for a free account at Personal Capital and take advantage of their fee analyzer tool to see how you stand.

I’m sure there are tons of other ways we waste or even pass up money on a daily basis. While standing in line all day for a free donut is probably not worth the efffort, spending a few extra minutes to take advantage of resources like matching retirement contributions and tax savings probably is.

What is the biggest way you’ve left money on the table? Why don’t more kids turn in homework?


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Written By
Sydney White is a Texas-born stay at home mom who enjoys spending time with her family, bargain hunting and, of course, writing. She is currently the editor-in-chief of


  1. I just realized last week that I had $950 in employer incentives left to earn for my HSA. I took a few hours on Friday and did the required activities to earn it….looking forward to seeing that deposit in my HSA…..CHA CHING!

  2. I left money on the table years ago when I invested in a mutual fund with extra money rather than an ETF. This was before I was a financial advisor and I knew ETFs had lower fees, but when I went to search for one, I was overwhelmed with the options and had no idea how to pick the right one, so I went with a mutual fund instead.

  3. Great post Kim! I contribute up to the max employer match on my 401K even though I am aggressively paying off a $350K mountain of debt! Then again, my employer matches 150% up to 6% – and that’s practically unheard of. Another way I keep more money in my pocket is by negotiating everything – as I discussed in my most recent blog.

  4. Personal Capital saved me a ton of fees a while ago – I had funds with low-ish fees, or so I thought – but I had no idea how much it added up to over time. I didn’t even have to move the money to a different company, and all it took to get them in a lower fee fund was a phone call. So that was about 15 years of paying more feed than I should have.

    Honestly, I am surprised that only 25% leave 401k money on the table – I would’ve bet it was at least half!

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