What is the National Foundation for Credit Counseling thinking? The conclusion it draws from its latest survey certainly means well, but following its conclusion might ultimately lead consumers deeper into debt.

Survey says…
According to the NFCC's recent poll, 76% of American consumers surveyed said their top New Year's resolution was to decrease debt. Just 6% chose increasing savings, while 11% wanted to improve their credit scores, and 7% were focusing on decreasing their dependence on credit cards. While that seems reasonable enough to me, the NFCC appears shocked and alarmed that more people aren't interested in saving more.

Sure, saving more is important, especially now that most of us have only ourselves to rely on for a decent retirement. But come on -- millions of Americans are deep in credit card debt, and they should be focusing on paying that down. Any growth they'd earn by investing in excellent stocks would likely be eclipsed by the dramatic expansion of their debt.

Not even this growth is powerful enough
Take a gander at the long-term growth rates of these very familiar stocks, and how they would have increased an initial investment of $10,000 over 20 years:

Company

20-Year Avg. Annual Return

$10,000 Would Have Grown To…

Schwab (NASDAQ:SCHW)

24.0%

$772,000

Walgreen (NYSE:WAG)

15.1%

$167,000

Texas Instruments (NYSE:TXN)

14.8%

$158,000

Hasbro (NYSE:HAS)

10.3%

$71,000

Kroger (NYSE:KR)

9.8%

$64,000

Merck (NYSE:MRK)

9.6%

$62,000

Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW)

5.6%

$30,000

Data: Yahoo! Finance. As of Jan. 19.

Clearly, you'd have made a lot of money if you'd invested in some of those stocks. With 24% average annual growth, Schwab's shares alone would have multiplied your investment by more than 75 times in just 20 years.

However, many credit cards are charging consumers more than 24% interest -- a dire form of financial quicksand. At those lofty rates, any sums consumers owed would grow even faster than Schwab shares did.

Yes, we all should save and invest -- but only after our debt is under control. It's undeniably vital to build yourself an emergency fund, in case you suffer a sudden income loss. But once you've accomplished that, paying down any high-interest debt should be your top priority; investing can wait until after you're out of the hole. If you're happily earning 12% in the stock market -- an exceptional performance in most years -- but paying 20% or 30% to your credit card company, you're still losing ground.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article. Hasbro and Charles Schwab are Motley Fool Stock Advisor picks. The Fool owns shares of Hasbro. Try any of our investing newsletters free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.