Q&A: Avoid this big mistake when paying off debt

Dear Liz: I am 49, single, with no kids. Until about three years ago, I wasn’t even sure how much credit card debt I had. I had less than $200 in savings and I was just plugging along making minimum payments. It turns out I had over $14,000 in credit card debt and $12,000 in student loan debt. The credit card debt was accumulated not from extravagant purchases but rather from living in an expensive city and trying to pursue a dream career. (I worked only three days a week in my “day job” for about 12 years.)

My living expenses have always been modest, but I made a budget, lived even more frugally, and made large monthly payments. In the process I also cashed out my small 401(k), as I have done a couple of times previously. Fast-forward to now — my credit card debt is paid off, my student loan is paid off, I have about five months of living expenses in savings and a reasonable annual income of $60,000. I have no retirement savings, though. What is my next best step to get money accumulating for my old age?

Answer: You’re to be congratulated for taking charge of your financial life, but it’s unfortunate you sacrificed your 401(k) to do so. It rarely makes sense to cash out retirement funds to pay debt. The interest you saved is typically far outweighed by the taxes, penalties and lost future tax-deferred returns you incurred by tapping your 401(k) prematurely.

Fortunately, the budgeting skills you learned will come in handy now that you’re focused on saving for retirement. Continue to make large monthly payments, but direct the money into your 401(k) if you still have one or an IRA if you don’t. If you max out your tax-deductible options, you can continue to put money into a taxable brokerage account.

You should plan to continue working as long as possible and to delay starting Social Security, preferably until your benefit maxes out at age 70. Social Security is likely to be your largest source of income, so the bigger your check, the more comfortable your ultimate retirement will be.

Also, take steps to protect and enhance your biggest current asset — your ability to earn money. Many people are derailed financially in their 50s by unexpected layoffs and health problems. You can improve your chances of being able to earn well into your 60s by taking good care of yourself, investing in new skills and trying to be a top performer at work.

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