4 Mistakes to Avoid When You're Paying Off Debt

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If you want to become debt free ASAP, you can't afford to make these errors.

Paying off debt is one of the most worthwhile financial goals you can set for yourself.

If you free yourself of obligations to your creditors, it comes with a whole host of benefits. You may be able to raise your credit score, you'll no longer waste money on interest, and you'll free up the cash you were devoting to your monthly payment.

Unfortunately, it can take a lot of effort to achieve freedom from debt -- especially if you owe a lot of money. As such, you can't afford errors that make the process even more challenging. In particular, here are four big mistakes you'll definitely want to steer clear of.

1. Tapping your retirement accounts

Perhaps you're struggling with debt while your retirement account balances are growing. You may be tempted to just pull the money out of your 401(k) or IRA to pay back your creditors and kiss your debt goodbye for good.

Unfortunately, this is almost always a really bad idea. First and foremost, if you're under 59½ and you make an early withdrawal, you'll be hit with a 10% penalty. Withdrawals are also taxed at your ordinary income tax rate. You'll have to pay these taxes, and so you'll lose a substantial portion of the money you've taken out. If you take out $10,000 but end up losing, say, 35% of the money to the IRS and your state government, you'd actually end up with just $6,500 to pay on your bills.

You can sometimes avoid penalties by taking out a 401(k) loan instead of an early withdrawal. But this is only an option if you have 401(k) funds and your plan allows it. And if you can't pay the loan back on time (including on an accelerated payment schedule if you leave your job for any reason), you could find yourself owing an early withdrawal penalty.

You also have to consider the lost potential returns. If your money isn't invested, it can't earn returns that help your account grow. You could lose out on decades of compound interest if you take an early withdrawal or a loan you don't pay back. It could end up shrinking your future account balance by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

2. Missing out on the chance to save on interest

When repaying debt, the more of your payment that goes to interest, the less progress you make on reducing your balance. That's why high-interest debt can take longer to pay off and can also be much more costly.

If you're serious about becoming debt free ASAP, it's important to look for interest-saving opportunities. This could include using a balance transfer credit card or low-interest personal loan to consolidate and refinance high-interest debt.

For example, let's say you have one or more credit cards charging 17% interest. If you can pay off that debt with a personal loan that has a 10% rate -- or a balance transfer offering a 0% promotional one -- debt paydown should be a lot easier.

3. Refinancing debt without a plan to pay it off

Refinancing debt, as mentioned above, can be a great way to lower repayment costs. But there's a caveat: You have to be serious about debt paydown. There are a few reasons for this.

First, you want to make sure you can afford the payments on your new loan or make large enough payments to repay the balance transfer card before your 0% rate expires. You also want to ensure you don't just charge up your old credit cards again, which can be tempting after you've freed up credit.

Having a plan also ensures you don't get a false sense of progress. If you continue to charge more and fail to aggressively pay down your balance, moving debt around won't solve your problems.

4. Devoting all your extra cash to debt repayment if you have no emergency fund

If you're trying to become debt free ASAP, it might seem as if the smartest move is to put every spare dollar you have toward debt repayment. But if you don't have an emergency fund, this could set you up for disaster.

See, emergencies inevitably happen and you'll have to cover the associated costs. If that occurs and you have no emergency fund, you could be forced to borrow again -- even as you're working hard to pay down debt. This can be demoralizing. It can also leave you trapped in a vicious cycle where you pay down your balance, only to have an emergency expense push it up again.

By saving up at least a small emergency fund with around $1,000 to $2,000 in it, you can significantly reduce the chances of this happening. You can split your extra cash between extra debt payments and building this fund until you've got enough saved for a rainy day. At that point, you'll be ready to devote all your spare dollars to debt payoff.

If you're determined to say goodbye to your creditors for good, stick at it. If you avoid these four mistakes, hopefully, you can make it happen sooner rather than later.

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