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Dear Liz: I’m not sure whether I should be aggressively paying off the balance of my student loans or saving that money for a down payment for an apartment. I graduated from law school with $150,000 in federal and private loans. Over the last few years I’ve paid off most of that, but I still have about $50,000 in federal loans with a rate fixed at 3.75%. I fully fund my 401(k) each year, have an emergency fund of five months’ bare-bones living expenses and another $35,000 in fairly conservative, mostly liquid investments. I plan to change jobs in the next six to nine months and will likely take somewhat of a pay cut. I am torn right now as to whether I should continue aggressively paying off my loans, since that is a guaranteed 3.75% return on that money, or put the surplus into my investment account, which may earn a better return but also has some risk of losing principal. This would be my down payment money; I live in New York, so I have another five years or so before I could consider buying, and I’m currently single, so changes in my relationship status could change this goal. It would be wonderful to be debt-free, but it would also be comforting to have a bigger balance in my bank account.
Answer: You’ve already done well by fully funding your retirement, paying off those private student loans and building an emergency fund. At this point, you can’t make a truly wrong decision about what to do with your money. What comes next depends on your comfort level.
Many financial planners would advise against paying off that low-rate student debt. If inflation returns, the rate you’re paying could seem incredibly cheap. Also, paying off student debt doesn’t really increase your financial flexibility. It’s not like a line of credit that you can pay down and tap again later. The money you send off to your student lender is gone for good.
On the other hand, you’re not likely to earn a whopping return on money that’s earmarked for a goal within the next five years. If you need money within 10 years, it shouldn’t be in the stock market; if your goal is five years out, most of it should be in shorter-term bonds and cash, such as an FDIC-insured savings account or certificates of deposit with varying maturities. You could decide the guaranteed 3.75% return of paying off the debt is better than the alternative.
Like so much of adult life, the choice is yours. Unlike so much of adult life, you really can’t go wrong whichever path you take.