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You’re constantly being told you have to save for retirement or risk not having enough for your old age.

But you only have so much money.

So which should you prioritize? Should you pay down debt or save for retirement?

This is the dilemma of one young couple. Combined they have $100,000 in student loans.

The wife wrote to me during one of my live online discussions. It was a “WWMD” question or, “What would Michelle do?”

She wrote: “I am currently 29, and have student loans from law school. We are about to have a mortgage payment. And while my husband and I do not have children, we are trying for a child now. Since I got out of law school about three years ago, I’ve saved a little over $30,000. My husband is also saving. Should I be putting more toward retirement? Right now, we technically have extra money at the end of each month, but we have been putting that toward saving for a house, which we’ll close on soon. We bought under budget, though we will need to do renovations. I always worry we’re not putting enough away for retirement but at the same time, we only have so much money and a lot of things going on that require that money.”

I’d like to address a few things before getting to the key question.

The home: With a $100,000 in debt I would not have purchased a home. This couple already has mortgage-like debt.

Homeowners, back me up.

The cost of owning a home doesn’t stop with the mortgage payment. Even a newly constructed home can be a money pit — curtains, furniture, lawn care, etc. And in this case, the couple has bought a home that they know will need repairs. That’s more money.

The $30,000: If they both have jobs that are fairly secure, I would set aside a modest amount for emergencies — $5,000 maybe — and take the rest of the money and make a huge dent in the student loans. Yes, it’s important to have an emergency fund, but don’t hang onto student loans like it’s a pet. They should free up money in their budget for the baby by getting rid of the loans as quickly as possible. Soon enough, when the child comes, they will be worrying about saving for college.

The student loans: If they used what they’ve got saved, they can cut the debt down to $75,000. It took just three years on the wife’s salary alone to save $30,000. Stay the course adding whatever the husband can save from his earnings — and in six years they could be totally free of the student loans. In fact, I would recommend, if they can, to live on one salary and be done with the debt even sooner.

So now let’s get to whether they should save for retirement.

I noticed the reader asked should she be putting “more” toward retirement. I actually think they both should pull back on retirement savings to speed up getting rid of that $100,000. But here are a couple of caveats to this recommendation.

If they have workplace retirement plans that have a match, they should put in just enough money to get the matching contributions from their employers.

And as an attorney, she may be working in the public sector and qualify for loan forgiveness. If so, the couple could just pay off the debt that is not covered by the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which cancels federal student debt after a person working in the public sector makes 10 years of on-time payments.

WWMD: Get the debt done and then save more — as much as you can — for retirement.

Because they are so young, I think they should pay off the debt first. They still have enough time to catch up on their retirement savings. But it will take discipline, which includes living below their means even as their income increases.

Your thoughts

I’d like to hear what you might recommend to this young couple. I’m especially interested in comments from people struggling with the same issue. Are you putting off retirement savings because you’ve got a lot of debt? Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name, city and state. Put “Retirement vs. Debt” in the subject line.

Retirement in the news

In case you missed it, Congress is looking at tinkering with retirement savings.

Retirement rants and raves

I’m interested in your experiences or concerns about retirement or aging. What do you like about retirement? What came as a surprise?

If you haven’t retired yet, what concerns you financially?

You can rant or rave. This space is yours. It’s a chance for you to express what’s on your mind. Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line put “Retirement Rants and Raves.”

In last week’s newsletter I asked: What was on your pre-retirement checklist?

This is what Americans think is the ideal age to retire. It’s older than you may want.

G.M. from the Bronx is newly retired at 60. “I’m very fortunate to have a very good pension and health benefits as well as savings in a 403(b). I started out investing 3 percent of my income monthly and didn’t feel it at all until I got to 10 percent. I kept going until I went to the maximum amount allowed for several years. It’s paid off. My Mom would say, ‘It’s not how much, it’s how often.’”

“We need to move away from asking what is the ideal age at which to retire and instead ask, ‘What is the ideal financial circumstances at which to retire?’ ” wrote Donna Skelcy from Decatur, Ga.

Skelcy recommended reading research published in the Social Security Bulletin: Behavioral and Psychological Aspects of the Retirement Decision

Peter from Orlando wrote, “I am still working at 62. My wife is already retired. We have been saving over the decades that we have been together, so we both could get by if I retired today. However, I don't plan to just yet. The number one reason is that my employer pays for my health coverage and it makes no sense to me to pay out of pocket before Medicare kicks in. I would much rather keep adding to my retirement nest egg rather than starting to draw it down.”

G.M. wrote, “I just turned 65. I haven’t decided when I will retire, certainly not for another five years. I love my work! And as much as I love my husband, we would kill each other if we were together 24 hours a day. Luckily, he’s resigned himself to working until 65, which is a number of years away. Oh, the money issue? Not an issue for us. We have saved aggressively for many, many years and will probably only have to use the interest from our investments along with Social Security and pensions to have a very good retirement.”

On retirement worries, Earl Roethke of Minneapolis wrote, “My biggest concern about retirement is inflation, and thus I’m pretty furious about this recent tax giveaway to the rich. We were already taking in less than we were spending as a nation, and with such low unemployment, there isn’t the slack in the economy to fuel growth. My fear is that this will only fuel inflation, which is the ultimate enemy to those on fixed incomes.”

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