Roughly 80% of Americans across all generations carry some form of debt, according to a survey from financial services company Nitro.
Whether you're saddled with credit card debt, student loans, a mortgage, or all of the above, debt can be a serious burden on your financial health. Not only does it eat away at your paychecks every month, but it can also cause significant long-term damage if left unchecked.
No matter what type of debt you have, there are a few reasons it's important to start paying it down as soon as possible.
1. It will help you save more for retirement
If you're simply forking over the minimum payments each month to keep the debt collectors away, you may be doing more harm than good. The longer you take to pay off debt, the less time you have to save for retirement.
Time is your most valuable asset in saving for retirement -- the earlier you start, the easier it is to build a nest egg of thousands of dollars or more. Sometimes, it's best to try to balance retirement saving and paying down debt. In other situations, you may want to go full-force on your debt so you can increase your retirement savings later.
The option that's right for you depends on the type and amount of debt you're carrying. High-interest debt (such as credit cards) is the most harmful, and you'll want to pay that off as quickly as possible. Credit cards can charge interest rates anywhere from around 15% to over 20% per year, and if you're only earning a 7% or 8% return on your retirement investments, you could end up paying more in interest than you're earning. So in this case, it's a good idea to supercharge your debt repayments. Once it's paid off, put all your efforts into catching up on retirement saving.
Other types of debt, like student loans and mortgages, have lower interest rates and are therefore less harmful. In this situation, you can balance paying off your debts and saving for retirement at the same time. (If you wait until you're 100% debt-free, you may never save for retirement.) The key here is to save at least a little each month, because the more time your money has to grow, the better off you'll be later.
2. It can improve your health
Struggling with debt can lead to stress; it even has its own name in the medical community: debt stress syndrome. It can lead to other health problems such as depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, and diabetes, according to the Credit Counselling Society. The longer it takes you to tackle your debt, the greater the toll it will take on your health. But having a strategy to repay your debt can help reduce stress significantly.
Again, prioritize high-interest debt, which can wreak havoc on your finances if left unchecked. If you're loaded with credit card debt, you may want to open a balance-transfer credit card to take advantage of the 0% interest introductory period. This lets you tackle the principal without having to worry about interest, helping you pay your debt down faster.
Another strategy is to see where you can cut spending to put more cash toward other financial goals. It may be tough to see exactly how much you're spending (and where your money is going) unless you maintain a budget. A map of all your expenses shows where you can make cuts, which can be reallocated toward your debt, retirement, or both.
Part of the reason debt can be so stressful is that it may feel like your finances are out of control. A plan for how you intend to pay it down can help you get your finances back on track.
3. It will improve your overall financial situation
Debt can affect your finances in so many ways; letting it get out of control can cause a domino effect.
For example, if you're burdened with thousands of dollars in credit card debt and the interest payments are climbing, you might skip a couple of payments so you can pay all your other bills. But those missed payments ding your credit score and cause the credit card company to increase your interest rate (and likely also charge a hefty late fee). Then, an unexpected expense pops up and you can't afford to pay for it. You try to take out a loan, but the lender charges you a high interest rate because you have a less-than-ideal credit score. The cycle continues, and you can't help but dig yourself deeper and deeper into debt.
To avoid all this, do whatever you can to pay off toxic forms of debt. That could mean cutting your budget down to the bare bones for a few months, or picking up a side job and putting all that money toward your debt. The faster you get out of debt, the more it improves your overall financial health.
Nearly everyone deals with debt at some point, but if it gets out of control, it can potentially ruin your finances. Regain control with a strategy for tackling your debt, and you can improve your finances and reach your goals.