Q&A: Is it smarter to save for retirement or pay off debt first?

Dear Liz: I graduated from college in May and began a full-time job in October making $36,000. I also do freelance work and receive anywhere from $500 to $1,000 a month from that. I live at home, so I don’t have to pay for rent or groceries, which really helps. Currently, I have just over $18,800 in student loans at an average interest rate of 4.45%. I have also opened a Roth IRA.

My plan currently is to contribute $500 a month to my IRA in order to max it out, and pay $700 a month to my student loans in order to get them out of the way quickly. Or is it better to skip the Roth and put that extra $500 toward my student loans? That way, I would be debt free when I move out of my parents’ house next year. The stock market has done nothing but fall since I opened my account, and I am reading that it could do the same this year as well. But I have also read that it’s good to just keep consistently contributing to an IRA when your debt isn’t high-interest to reap the rewards of compounded returns.

Answer: It’s generally a good idea to start the habit of saving for retirement early and not stop. What the market is doing now doesn’t really matter. It’s what the market does over the next four or five decades that you should care about, and history shows that stocks outperform every other investment class over time.

The $6,000 you contribute this year could grow to about $100,000 by the time you’re in your 60s, if you manage an average annual return of around 7%. (The stock market’s long-term average is closer to 8%.) And Roth IRAs are a pretty great way to invest, because withdrawals are tax-free in retirement.

That said, your other option isn’t a bad idea either. You are not proposing to put off retirement savings for years while you pay off relatively low-rate debt, which clearly would be a bad idea. Instead, what you’re losing is the opportunity to fund a Roth for one year. That’s an opportunity you can’t get back — but you could fully fund the Roth next year, and perhaps use some of your freelance money to fund a SEP IRA or solo 401(k) as well.

Either way, you should be fine.

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