Dear Liz: It’s still not clear to me how I should prioritize saving for retirement, paying down (massive) student loan debt and buying or building a modest house, even though I have read a number of your articles and answers to many other readers’ questions. Once I pay off what is left of my credit card debt and build up an emergency fund, what then? Do I put retirement first, paying down student loans second and a modest house last? Or should I pay my student loans last — for instance, by opting for an income-based repayment rather than the higher, regular payment amount and going for the house instead?
Answer: You should put retirement saving first now, even before you pay off your debt. If you don’t get a relatively early start putting away money for retirement you’re unlikely to be able to catch up later. Those who start saving after age 35 have a very tough time putting away enough money to comfortably retire, says Roger Ibbotson, founder of Ibbotson Associates financial research firm and a Yale School of Management professor. The ideal time to start saving for retirement is with your first job.
Prioritizing retirement means you’ll have less money for other goals, so paying down your debt and building up an emergency fund will take longer, but so be it. The amount of extra interest you pay on your debt will be overshadowed by the tax breaks and investment gains you’ll make in the long run in your retirement accounts.
After paying off your credit card debt, your next goals will depend on your individual situation. If all your education debt is federal student loans rather than private loans, then you needn’t be in a rush to pay it off. That’s because federal student loans have relatively low, fixed rates and many flexible repayment options. You also may qualify for student loan forgiveness in 10 years if you work in public service or 25 years if you don’t. An income-based repayment plan would allow you to minimize your payments so you could put money toward other goals. You can research your repayment options at FinAid.org, a financial aid and student loan education site.
If, on the other hand, you have some private student loans, you’ll probably want to make paying that off a priority since the rates are variable and you don’t have as many repayment options. (You probably wouldn’t be able to make income-based payments, for example.)
When to prioritize a home purchase depends, again, on your individual situation. If you’re sure you’re where you want to be for the next 10 years or so and are eager to own a home, you could start a down payment fund as soon as you finish paying off the credit card debt.