Should You Save For Retirement While Paying Off Debt?

When Brandon and I got married, we had more than six-figures of debt between the two of us. We both had student loans, and I was still paying off the credit card debt from my divorce.

One of the very first things I did after our wedding day was sit down and make a list of all of our debts. I wanted to put together a debt payoff plan ASAP.

One of the questions I struggled with was how much, if any, we should continue to put toward retirement while paying off debt.

Working for the state government, I was required to put at least 6.5% of my income toward my retirement account, and the state would match it. But we also had Brandon’s retirement account to consider. Not to mention, once I left my job to run my business full-time just four months after the wedding, I was on my own for retirement savings.

I’m not the only one to have struggled with this decision — it’s one of the most common questions I see from those trying to figure out their finances. And considering some personal finance experts still teach that you shouldn’t put a dollar until retirement until you’re debt-free, it’s understandably confusing.

In this article, I’m going to lay out a few basic guidelines for you to follow when figuring out how to save for retirement while paying off debt. But ultimately, everyone’s situation looks different and you have to do what’s right for you.

Should You Save For Retirement While Paying Off Debt?

Contribute enough to get your employer match

Many employers offer to match up to a particular percentage of your income that you contribute to a company 401(k) plan. For example, your employer might say they’ll match the first 3% or 6% of your salary that you contribute.

This match is free money and could equate to hundreds — or more likely thousands — of dollars per year.

If your employer offers a 401(k) match, make this your first priority. Depending on the type and interest rate of your debt, contribute just enough to get the employer match. You can always increase it later when your debt situation is different.

Pay off high-interest debt

The interest rate on credit cards is brutal. For millennials, it can be anywhere from 20% to 25%. Interest this high makes it incredibly hard to pay off debt. You find that each month, most of your money is going toward interest, and barely any of it is going toward the principal balance.

And it’s not just credit cards with high interest. I’ve seen plenty of student loans, car loans, and personal loans with interest rates above 10%.

If you have high-interest debt (which I’d consider anything above 6 or 7 percent) prioritize that before increasing your retirement savings. With more money available in your monthly budget, you can pay well above the minimum payment and pay it down a lot faster than you otherwise would have.

The reason to prioritize these debts above saving and investing is that the interest rate on them is higher than the rate of return you’re likely to get in your retirement account. If your retirement account is seeing an 8% return rate and your debt has an interest rate of 20%, you really aren’t making money — you’re losing money.

Read: How to Pay Off Credit Card Debt Fast

Consider the interest rate of your debt

Once your high-interest debt is gone, you’re probably left with student loans, car loans, or a mortgage with rates of anywhere from 3% to 6%.

Once you get to this point, it’s a good idea to increase the amount you’re contributing to your retirement accounts.

Why?

Because at this point, the rate of return you can get on your investments is likely higher than the interest rate you’re paying on your debt. If your retirement account sees an average 8% return and your student loans have a 4% interest rate, you’re making more on your investments than you’re losing on loan interest.

For each individual debt, consider the interest rate. Is it higher or lower than the average stock market return (which has been about 10% annually over the past century)?

Another reason to save for retirement if you can — retirement accounts are tax-advantaged. Depending on the type of account, this means that you either aren’t paying taxes on the money you contribute, or you contribute money post-tax and then won’t pay taxes when you withdraw it. 

Read: Debt Snowball vs. Debt Avalanche: Which Debt Payoff Strategy is Right For You?

How to save for retirement while paying off debt

So you’ve decided that you want to contribute to retirement while paying off debt. Great! But where do you start?

First, sit down and look at your monthly budget. After you account for your monthly bills, how much is left? Once you know how much money you have to work with, treat both your retirement savings and your debt payoff as a line item in your monthly budget.

Deciding how much to contribute to each is up to you. But there are a few tools I recommend to find some guidance in this area:

  • Undebt.it: This debt payoff tool allows you to add all of your debt accounts, and then it helps to design a debt payoff plan for you. It helps determine which order to prioritize your debts in, and then shows you how quickly you can be debt-free depending on the amount you put toward debt each month.
  • NerdWallet Retirement Calculator: There are plenty of retirement calculators out there, but this one is my favorite. You input information such as your annual income, current retirement savings, age, and desired income during retirement. Then it tells you whether you’re on track to reaching your retirement goals, and how much you should contribute each month to get there.

Final Thoughts

One of the reasons it’s so hard to find the perfect personal finance advice is finances are just that — personal. What works for someone else may not exactly work for you, and vice versa.

That’s why it helps to look for general guidelines, and then you can adapt them to fit your specific situation.

Debt and retirement, in particular, are some of the more stressful financial topics we all face. You want to make sure you’re putting enough money toward each, while still having money in your budget to enjoy your life.

Trust me, I understand the struggle!

I talk to so many people who want to know if they should pay off debt or save for retirement. And as you can see, you can do both!