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Pay off debt or save for retirement?

Here's an approach that makes both worthy goals a priority.

By MSN Money Partner May 10, 2012 8:15AM

This post comes from Rob Berger at partner blog The Dough Roller.


The Dough Roller on MSN MoneyOne question I see a lot deals with which financial goal you should tackle first.


Should you pay off your credit card debt first, and then build an emergency fund? Should you save for retirement while you still have school loans? Which credit card should you pay off first?


Image: Money in nest (© Steven Puetzer/Getty Images/Getty Images)Deacon Hayes from Well Kept Wallet asked the following question in response to my post about the 2012 Retirement Confidence Survey:

I agree with trying to start investing as early as you can, but what if you have debt? Shouldn't you pay that off first?

My first reaction was to look through the archives at The Dough Roller to find articles that cover this topic. I found several:

One thing I found interesting is how my approach to this topic has changed over the five years I've blogged at The Dough Roller. Today, my starting point would be to prioritize savings and debt repayment. Let me explain.


Recently I wrote about where you should put your retirement savings. Based on a forum posting over at the Bogleheads, the priority looks something like this:

  1. 401k/403b up to the company match.
  2. Max out Roth IRA.
  3. Max out 401k/403b.
  4. Taxable investing.

Let's add some debt into this picture. Let's assume the following debts:

Now the picture is not so clear. Still, I think we can come up with a general framework on how to approach this, recognizing that every situation can be different and require a different approach. So where do we begin? (Post continues below video.)

Lower every interest rate you can

Step One with debt is to get the lowest interest rate you possibly can. Can you refinance your mortgage? Even at the 5% in our example, a refi down to 4% may be doable, given the low mortgage rates today.


Can you refinance your car loan? It's actually much easier than you might think. Most auto refinances can be done online. Finally, can you transfer your balances to a 0% credit card? Credit card rates tend to be the highest compared with other forms of debt, so getting your interest to zero can save a lot of money.


Now what?

Let's assume you can't get your interest rates any lower. Where do you start? If I were in this situation, my first step would be to invest in a 401k up to my company's match. Why? The company match is free money. Even with credit card debt, I'd take advantage of my employer's contribution to my retirement. Some may disagree with me on this one, but it's just too hard for me to turn away free money.


Once I've done that, or if my employer doesn't match 401k contributions, I'd turn my attention to a small emergency fund. For me, I'd start by saving enough money to cover my expenses for one month. I just can't stand the thought of living paycheck to paycheck.


Once I had a small emergency fund stashed in a savings account, I'd tackle my high interest credit card debt. And I'd do everything in my power to pay off the cards as quickly as possible. (If you're struggling with high-rate cards, check out the Dough Roller series on how to get out of credit card debt.)


Once you get rid of your high-rate debt, the choices become a bit more difficult. Some would say pay off all of your nonmortgage debt. But at reasonably low rates, I prefer a more balanced approach.


I would take any extra cash (over and above the minimum payments I had to make on my debt) that I could get my hands on and put it in equal parts toward retirement savings, debt and my emergency fund.

For the debt, I'd tackle the car loan first, because it has a higher rate than the school loans. The school loans would come second. And I wouldn't begin paying more on my mortgage until I was maxing out my retirement savings and had a six-month emergency fund.


The problem I have with trying to pay off all debt first is that so many people never succeed. They pay down their debt for a period of time, but then something comes along that causes them to go into more debt.


So that's how I'd approach Deacon's question. How do you handle debt and saving?


More from The Dough Roller and MSN Money:

May 10, 2012 11:15AM
I am contributing 8% to 401K and receiving 6% company match. I pay off my credit balance every month (that took a while to become habit). I am making double payments on the car loan and paying a small amount extra toward the principle of my mortgage. I have less than a 6 figure income, but through dicipline (from plain and simple desire), and limiting luxuries where possible, it's working. I plan to pay off the car loan this year (2 years early on a 5 year loan) then redirect those funds toward my mortgage. My "plan" is to pay off the 30 year mortgage currently set for 2039 by 2023. I kept it 30 year to keep "required" payment low (just in case) and just pay extra towards principle. According to articles I've read, I'm a bit ahead of the curve in saving toward my retirement. While I may not be totally "debt free" when I retire, I'll adjust my lifestyle to whatever I have saved by then. Smart choices, a little sacrificing and keeping your eye on the goal can get you there. Sure I questions sometimes if i'm making the right moves, but must admit the small steps forward in getting there provide a sense of fulfillment to help get me through the occasional step back.
I don't know if I am in a unique position or not. In the 4 1/2 years since my wife passed away, I've gone from a mere $10K in the bank (most of which went toward death expenses), $28K in credit debit (car loan and credit card debt) excluding mortgage, all the way down to almost nothing in the bank. I've left the careers I trained for due to the emotional stress and draining that losing a long time (35 years) spouse inflicts on your psyche.

I have been working retail for the last 3 years. An okay position in a "mom and pop" type store, and a position in a mega-corporate chain. Thanks to the "mom and pop" job, I am completely out of credit debt, again excluding my mortgage. My credit score is in the 800's, I refinanced the mortgage last month from a 5.25% to a 3.0% loan, and dropped the loan period to 15 years.......from application to close.....13 days. I've also managed to save an emergency fund that will last me for the next 4 years if necessary.

Unique, probably not. Very lucky, yes.


the answer is easy save the money in a retirement account let your debt go sky high.


when you retire file for bankruptcy and your retirement money if done right can not be touched.


O.J. Simpson's retirement money could not be touched by Nicole Simpson's famliy when they sued him for her death.



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