Does this quandry sound familiar? You're anticipating next month's credit card bills with dread, fearing what this month's spending has done to your already growing balances. Tired of the guilt, you make a resolution to vigorously attack the debt and banish it forever. Then, when you sit down to make a plan, you get stuck on one question: Should you temporarily suspend your contributions to your retirement accounts to pay down that debt faster?
From a purely mathematical standpoint, the answer to that question is almost always "yes." It's very likely that the interest rates charged by your credit cards and other loans will exceed the returns on your retirement investments. That argues for paying down debt with every penny you can muster.
However, the mathematical answer isn't always the best answer. When a Fool recently posted this question to the Credit Cards and Consumer Debt discussion board, he got a wealth of creative answers, much of it born out of personal experience. Many people said it's best to keep up the retirement savings. Here are some of their ideas and a few others to ponder:
- Several Fools said they had held off contributing to their retirement funds with promises to pay down the debt. But, years later, the debt never got paid off and the retirement accounts never got funded. Or the debt got paid off but run up again, restarting the cycle and forcing another pause in retirement savings. There's danger in making promises that might not be kept and having your retirement savings suffer as a result.
- The young and determined may be in the best position to slow or stop retirement savings to pay down debt. They have more time to recover. The older you get, the riskier that proposition gets. You have less time to fund your retirement savings.
- If you do suspend your retirement contributions, consider setting goals for the amount of debt to be paid down within a certain time limit. If you're constantly missing those goals, it may be a sign you're not serious about attacking your debt, and you're simply spending your potential retirement savings on your current needs and wants.
- Paying off a serious load of debt can take a few years. If you're not saving enough in a 401(k) to at least get your employer's match during that time, you're missing an opportunity you can't go back and recapture. This is one case where the mathematical formula argues for retirement savings -- put away at least enough to get your matching contribution.
- Time makes an enormous difference in the growth of your retirement accounts. Holding off on making those contributions in order to pay down debt can, in some cases, mean delaying retirement.
- For many people deep in debt, one step toward financial recovery means establishing new and better habits. By putting just a little toward your retirement while paying off debt, you're establishing positive habits while aggressively paying off debt. You'll also have those accounts established, so that when you finish paying off your debt you can painlessly sock your old debt payments into your retirement accounts.
- Or consider the opposite strategy. Begin your plan to pay down your debt by maximizing your contributions to all the retirement savings vehicles at your disposal, including your 401(k) and a tax-advantaged IRA. That gets the money out of your hands entirely and should force you to get really serious about budgeting. By making you pay for your retirement and your debt at the same time, it mandates major changes in your lifestyle. As said by LovesChocolate, "That's because, quite simply, necessity is the mother of invention."
If you've been putting off retirement savings because of your debt, this strategy can help you catch up. The plan worked for mlk58, who reported that as a result, "retirement accounts are in good shape, debt is paid off, birds are singing, all is right with the world."
Whatever you decide to do with your retirement contributions, it's important to come up with a plan to pay down high-interest consumer debt. Carrying that load can put major hiccups not only in your plans for retirement, but in your other financial goals as well.
The Fools who contribute to the Credit Cards and Consumer Debt discussion board can offer support, encouragement, tough love, and many great budgeting ideas. If you're just getting started, begin with a tour of the Credit Center. Then start hatching your plan.
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