As you start to establish yourself financially, you may come to a crossroads: should you pay off debt or invest in your future? It can be confusing to know what to do in this situation, especially if you have multiple financial goals you’re saving toward.
The first step is to look at the numbers, then to consider your preferences. There is no one “right” answer to this question. Let’s start by taking a look at the numbers around major financial milestones like your student loan, buying a home, and saving for retirement.
Let’s say your student loan is $75,000. Buying a new home might cost $350,000, and you might plan to need $2,000,000 for a comfortable retirement. Everyone’s numbers will look a bit different, so feel free to take some time to calculate yours.
Once you’ve put your estimated numbers on a page, what jumps out at you? It’s hard not to notice that retirement is quite a bit more expensive than the others. This isn’t too much of a surprise if you consider what retirement is: living for decades with no salary.
While you might be tempted to put all your extra income immediately into your retirement fund, it’s not necessarily the winning decision when it comes to whether to pay off loans or invest. Let’s look deeper.
How Important is Paying Off Your Student Loans?
If you’re like the average student, you’ve borrowed $30,000 or more to pursue a bachelor’s degree . If you went on to graduate school, your student loan debt may be even higher.
Most federal student loans have a repayment period of 10 to 30 years. You may opt to make the minimum payment each month for the duration of your loan repayment plan, or you might decide to pay yours off early.
One benefit to paying off a student loan early is that you reduce your debt to income ratio (that’s how much debt you have compared to how much income you have). This might raise your credit score and help you qualify for other financial solutions.
Or, you might decide to continue paying your student loan while investing in other areas of your life, like retirement or buying a home.
Know Your Student Loan Interest Rates
Before you can decide whether to pay off student loans or save for other things, look at what you’re paying in interest for your student loans. If the rate you locked in when you took out your loan is higher than current rates, you might consider student loan refinancing. If you have multiple student loans, you could potentially consolidate and refinance them for a lower interest rate.
Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that refinancing federal student loans means you’re no longer eligible for federal benefits and protections, like income-driven repayment or loan forgiveness programs, so it makes sense to weigh the potential benefits and risks of refinancing before taking the plunge.
Comparing interest rates is an exercise in opportunity cost. Any decision to pursue one goal means you’re missing out on something else, but ideally, we look to minimize opportunity costs when assessing financial trade-offs. In this instance, the opportunity cost is leaving potential investment earnings on the table.
Let’s say you recently refinanced your student loan from 5% to 3.5%. Given the competitive rate on your newly refinanced student loan, you could consider continuing to make the monthly payment on your loan and allocating the extra cash flow elsewhere — like investing for retirement or buying a home.
Remember, we want to think about interest rates in terms of opportunity cost. What would it look like if you paid off your loan early? Your student loan costs you 3.5% annually, and that’s what you’ll “save” if you accelerate your payoff by $500 per month.
Once you paid off the loan early, you could invest your money in an asset class — such as the stock market — with the potential to earn a rate of return that’s higher than 3.5%. Historically, the stock market has returned an average of 10%. This investing can be done within a retirement account, whether a 401(k) or an IRA.
That said, stock market returns are erratic, and the annualized return figures you often hear quoted are just that — an average. Investing is risky, and there is always a chance that returns over the next five, 10, or 20 years will not outpace the interest that you are currently making on your student loan payment.
No one, not even a financial planner, has a crystal ball and can see into the future. This is why we also need to take into account your personal preferences.
If you feel like you are truly missing out on investing in an IRA or saving for a home, then investing in those things might be the right path for you. If your student debt makes you feel burdened and miserable, you could focus on that instead.
Paying Off Student Loans vs. Investing
“So, should I pay off student loans or invest,” you ask.
The answer is…it’s complicated.
Student loans often come with low interest rates, which means you’re not paying a huge amount of extra money over the years (like you would with a credit card, for example). So it’s low-cost debt. That means that if you want to invest in other areas of your life, such as saving for retirement or to buy a house, you may be able to do both.
Contributing to a Retirement Account
Many Americans are vastly under-saving for retirement, and with so many employers offering a 401(k) matching program, not contributing is like throwing money down the drain.
There is no standard for match programs — they can range from meager to generous. Between your contributions and your employer’s, it is often recommended that you save between 15% and 20% of your salary for retirement. You can do this by contributing the full allowable amount to your 401(k), which is $19,500 in 2021.
If you don’t have access to a 401(k) — perhaps you’re self-employed — you can save for retirement with other investment accounts like an online IRA or a brokerage account. No matter which account you use, you might want to consider putting that money to work with a long-term investment strategy. For example, you might choose to deploy a strategy of low-cost mutual funds that invests in stocks and bonds.
Buying a Home
Financial planners don’t all agree on whether a home is a good investment. That is not to say that a home is not a good financial goal; if it’s a priority to you, then it’s great. This is simply a commentary on whether a home produces a good return on investment.
Although a house may not have as high an investment return as other asset classes, such as the stock market, a house provides something that a stock or bond cannot — immediate utility. You cannot sleep and eat inside a stock or a bond.
While home values do typically grow over time, you must also take into consideration the costs of buying and owning a home, such as the interest paid on the mortgage, property taxes, and repairs and maintenance. That said, homeownership can be rewarding, and can pay major dividends down the line. One big benefit is having no monthly housing expenses (like rent or a mortgage) in retirement.
There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to investing while juggling debt. Undoubtedly, the biggest ticket item you’ll need to invest for is retirement — but whether you invest in retirement before or after paying down debt depends on your personal preferences and situation.
One thing to remember: Financial tradeoff decisions don’t always have to be all-or-nothing. You might choose to split the difference by putting a little here and a little there. For example, you might contribute $300 per month to your 401(k) and $200 to a high-yield savings account for your down payment for a house, all while paying off student loans.
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