Q&A: Nearing retirement and in debt? Now isn’t the time to tap retirement savings

Dear Liz: I’m 60 and owe about $12,000 on a home equity line of credit at a variable interest rate now at 7%. I won’t start paying that down until my other, lower-interest balances are paid off in about two years. I have about $130,000, or about 20%, of my qualified savings sitting in cash right now as a hedge against a falling stock market. Should I use some of that money to pay off the HELOC? I know I would pay tax on what I pull out of savings, but I’m not sure what the driving determinant is: the tax rate now while I’m working versus tax rate later after retirement? I don’t think there’s going to be a 7% difference in that calculus but please provide your recommendation.

Answer: There are enough moving parts to this situation, and you’re close enough to retirement, that you really should hire a fee-only financial planner.

Getting a second opinion is especially important when you’re five to 10 years from retirement because the decisions you make from this point on may be irreversible and have a lifelong effect on your ability to live comfortably.

In general, it’s best to pay off debt out of your current income rather than tapping retirement savings to do so. You’re old enough to avoid the 10% federal penalty on premature withdrawal, but the decision involves more than just tax rates. Many people who tap retirement savings haven’t addressed what caused them to incur debt in the first place and wind up with more debt, and less savings, a few years down the road.

That might not describe you, as you seem to be on track paying off other debt. But it’s usually best to tackle the highest-rate debts first, which you don’t seem to be doing. It’s also not clear if you’re saving enough for retirement. That will depend in large part on when you plan to retire, when you plan to claim Social Security, how much your benefit will be and how much you plan to spend.

A fee-only financial planner could review your circumstances and give you the personalized advice you need to feel confident you’re making the right choices. You can get referrals from a number of sources, including the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors, Garrett Planning Network and XY Planning Network.

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