The way people handle their money often defies logic.
I use this example to set the stage for what I’m about to say concerning a question I get all the time: Should I pay off my student loans or invest for retirement?
Here’s a question I received during one of my recent weekly online chats.
Q: “I’ve been trying to get the debt monkey off my back and am aggressively paying off my debt. In addition to your chat/column, I also follow some personal finance channels on YouTube, and one person said recently that aggressively paying down debt while you’re young can cost ‘millions’ later because of the lost time in potential retirement contributions you aren’t making. I’m 34 and my only debt is student loans. I’m currently putting enough money and a little extra in the [federal retirement] Thrift Savings Plan to get the match. I’d love to hear your thoughts on getting out of debt more quickly versus saving for retirement.”
Many financial experts would advise that if the loans have fairly low interest rates, then don’t worry about paying them off early. Instead, they would recommend taking any extra money and investing for retirement.
The younger you are, the more you gain by putting your money to work in the stock market, even with a conservative return of, say, 6 percent. Logically, this advice makes sense.
But in my experience, here’s what people often hear when such advice is given: “You don’t need to worry about those student loans because you’ll get more bang for your buck by investing.”
They internalize only part of the advice. In their minds, they have been given permission simply to make the minimum payments on their loans, and they feel freed from concerns about carrying the debt for decades.
So, they buy new cars. They rack up credit card charges by drinking and dining with friends and family. They take vacations.
Rather than invest, they use the money that would have been put toward aggressively paying off their student loans to plan a $10,000 wedding. Or worse, they put the cost of the wedding on their credit card.
Or they have kids or buy a home or both. Now, they have child-care costs and a mortgage.
They never get around to investing the extra funds for retirement because life gets in the way.
Let’s say they do start saving for retirement as a young adult, but they withdraw the money to use it for a down payment on that house or to pay off the credit card debt they’ve accrued.
All the while, their student loan balance is growing because they ask the lender to defer payments until they can get themselves financially situated.
Time marches on. Before they know it, they’re getting closer to retirement and have dragged their student loans through adulthood until the balance has ballooned to an alarming amount.
Then they say to me: “But I was told not to worry about the debt because the interest rate wasn’t that high, and my education was an investment.”
Compare these people with the ones who spent their 20s and maybe even their early 30s aggressively attacking their student loans. While doing so, they said “no” to a lot of things that would have derailed their efforts.
They might have moved back home with their parents to devote more of their income to paying off their student loans. Maybe after college, they continued to live with roommates because they could see an end in sight to their debt. They didn’t rack up much credit card debt or have a big wedding. They even waited to buy a home until the loans were paid off. They saved something for retirement, but they were laser-focused on eliminating their debt.
Finally, with the loans gone, they could contribute substantially more to their workplace retirement account, and at a higher rate than many of their peers. Time is still on their side.
This is why I recommend that people focus intensely on paying off their student loans before aggressively saving for retirement. And, please, invest enough to get whatever company match your employer offers. If you can pay off your loans early and invest, go for it.
Debt is like an albatross around your neck, said Joe Duarte, a market analyst, money manager and the author of “The Everything Guide to Investing in Your 20s & 30s.”
“Paying off debt is the priority, because the faster it is paid off, the faster savings and compounding take over,” Duarte said in an interview.
In his investment guide, Duarte encourages young adults to ask this question: Can I afford to invest?
“Think of debt as a big sack of potatoes that you carry on your back everywhere you go,” he writes. “By paying down debt and eliminating it altogether, you are taking a big weight off your financial shoulders. Being lighter makes you move faster.”
I call the sack a monkey on your back.
By the way, remember the “millions” you could be missing out on by not making extra student loan payments and investing instead?
Again, it’s not a realistic motivation for most people.
The average 401(k) account balance was $106,000 for the second quarter of this year, according to Fidelity Investments, the largest administrator of 401(k) plans.
There are 401(k) millionaires, and this club is growing, but they still represent a tiny minority — just about 1 percent of all workers who save in workplace retirement plans managed by Fidelity.
As you work hard to pay off your debt, learning the value of delayed gratification, you may find you can live on less, which helps you find the money to catch up on your retirement savings.
In the case of the 34-year-old borrower, even if he or she took another five or six years to pay off the student loans, there’s still time to save a lot of money if the goal is to retire in 20 or 25 years from now. Among employees who have been in their 401(k) plan for 10 years straight, the average balance reached $305,900 in the second quarter of this year, according to Fidelity.
Fidelity recommends setting a goal to save at least 15 percent of your pretax income each year, a target you may be able to reach if you include your employer’s match. With less debt to service, that’s possible for a lot of folks.
“Increasing your contribution rate, even by one percent, can make a big difference in your long-term retirement savings,” said Kevin Barry, president of workplace investing at Fidelity. “What may seem like a small amount today can have a significant impact on your account balance in 10 or 20 years.”
If you’re struggling under the weight of student loans — human behavior being what it is — pay off the debt as soon as you can before the cost of living the life you want takes precedence over getting rid of that monkey on your back.
How did you get out from under your student loans? If you paid it off early, did it hurt your retirement savings? Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line put “Retiring My Student loans.”
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 email@example.com. Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line put “Retirement Rants and Raves.”
Subscribe and stay informed
If you’re viewing this post online, sign up to automatically receive Michelle Singletary’s newsletters right into your email box: “Your Retirement” on Mondays and “Personal Finance” on Thursdays.
Read and share Michelle Singletary’s Color of Money Column on Wednesdays and Sundays in The Washington Post. You may also see the column in your local newspaper.