Dear Liz: I have credit card debt, federal student loans and a car loan. I’m trying to save for a house, but I also know I should save for retirement. How do I figure out what to tackle first?
Answer: If you have a 401(k) with a match at work, take advantage of it first. That’s free money that typically equals an instant 50% to 100% return on your contributions. Then pay off the credit card debt. You normally don’t need to be in a rush to pay off federal student loans. Your car loan is probably OK to pay off as scheduled too, assuming you got a decent interest rate.
After the credit card debt is vanquished, beef up your savings. Eventually you’ll want a separate emergency fund, but for the moment you can earmark the money for your down payment, knowing you can raid it in an emergency.
If you don’t have a 401(k) match or even a workplace plan — about half of workers don’t — you should still save something, but your priority will be to pay off the credit cards as fast as you can. Once that’s done, you can open a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. The traditional IRA will give you a tax break, but withdrawals will be taxed and may be penalized. If you contribute to a Roth, you don’t get to deduct your contribution but you can withdraw your contributions at any time without taxes or penalties. This makes a Roth a kind of emergency fund-slash-house fund. Ideally, you would leave the money alone until retirement, but it’s good to have a Plan B until you can build up your emergency and down payment funds elsewhere.