Pay Down Debt or Save and Invest?

 

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

The decision to pay off debt or save and invest money is a common dilemma.  The best solution largely depends on the type of debt you are dealing with and the interest rate that you are paying.  Not all debt is created equal; high interest rate, non-deductible debt, like credit card debt and consumer financing, is generally a bad use of debt. On the other hand, low interest, tax deductible debt such as a mortgage or a home equity loan is generally a more favorable use of debt.  Financially, it’s usually wise to own your home and few of us can afford to pay cash. 

If you have a lot of consumer debt or a large credit card balance with a high interest rate, you are probably spending a substantial sum just to cover the interest.  You need to pay more than your minimum payment to start working down the debt.  It’s important to pay down debt, but you also need to maintain some liquidity to cover unexpected expenses.  There is no magic formula for how much of your available cash should be used to pay down debt and how much should go toward building your emergency fund.  Everyone needs an emergency fund, and I generally I recommend maintaining an emergency fund equal to about four months of expenses.  However, if you are drowning in credit card debt consider using half of your money to pay down debt and the other half to build up an emergency fund until you have around $2,000.  Continue along this path a while longer, if you want to build a larger emergency fund.

 Without an emergency fund you could fall into a never ending debt spiral.   If you don’t have an emergency fund, you may be forced to run up credit card debt again when the inevitable emergency arises.    

As you make progress toward paying off debt, you may wonder if you should invest some money for retirement or your other financial goals.  Generally, you should prioritize paying down debt if the after tax interest rate on your debt is higher than your expected after tax investment return.  When considering the possibility of investing some of your funds, factor in the risk associated with investing your money.   Investing is subject to fluctuations in the market, but there is no market risk associated with the interest you save by paying down debt.

 Additional factors that may enter into the decision to invest some of your money include the opportunity to get an employer match on a 401k contribution and the potential tax deduction you could receive from contributing to a retirement plan.

Finally, if you pay down your high interest debt and you want to pay your mortgage off early, consider the impact this could have on your tax deductions.  You also need to weigh this against the return you could earn, if the money is invested.

Financial Pitfalls to Avoid

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Below are some common pitfalls that I have observed over the last seventeen years as a financial planner.  You may have a smoother journey toward reaching your financial goals if you can avoid some of the hazards along the way.

Living Beyond Your Means – Take the time to review your monthly expenses and compare them to your income.   Establish a budget where you spend less than you earn.  A good way to deal with unforeseen financial issues is to always save at least 10% of your income and avoid unnecessary debt.

No Emergency Fund – Everyone should maintain an emergency fund of at least three months of expenses.  This should be higher if you don’t have a lot of job security or your income fluctuates.  Without an emergency fund, large unexpected expenses can quickly throw you into a negative debt spiral.

Too Much Debt – Avoiding debt is a mindset.  There is good debt and bad debt – it may be wise to secure a low interest, tax deductible mortgage when purchasing a home.  This enables you to start building equity and reap the benefit of appreciation as the value of your home increases.  However, it is generally not advisable to finance personal items such as furniture and appliances.  If you can’t pay cash, you should probably wait and save up for the purchase.   Avoid credit cards if you can’t pay off the entire balance at the end of the month.  

Overspending on Vehicles – Financing the purchase of a new vehicle can negatively impact your monthly budget.  I have seen clients and friends take on car payments in excess of their home mortgage.  Vehicles are depreciating assets and they are not a good investment.  When possible you should buy a used vehicle and save your money to purchase your car with cash.  Unless you have a lot of disposable income, minimize your vehicle expenses and buy with functionality in mind.

Putting Kids Through College at the Expense of Retirement – I know you love your kids and you want to give them a good start in life but don’t sacrifice your retirement.  There are many ways to minimize college expenses and finance a college education.  You can’t take out a loan to finance your retirement.

Get Rich Schemes – I’ve heard them all – every few months someone will ask me about some new product or investment scheme that promises low risk, double digit returns.  There is no free lunch, if it sounds too good to be true, it is! 

Emotional Reaction to Movements in Market – Stocks are long term investments, you need to be willing and able to ride out the fluctuations in the market.   Over long periods of time, the stock market has trended upward; however, there will be periods with negative returns.  Avoid the natural tendency to react emotionally to market downturns.  Stay the course and follow your long term plan.

10 Tips for Financial Success

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Jane M. Young CFP, EA

1. Set Goals –
Review your personal values, develop a personal strategic plan, establish specific goals for the next three years and identify action steps for the coming year.

2. Understand Your Current Situation –
Review your actual expenses over the last year and develop a budget or a cash flow plan for the next 12 months. Compare your expenses and your income to better understand your cash flow situation. Are you’re spending habits aligned with your goals? Can or should you be saving more?

3. Have sufficient Liquidity –
Maintain an emergency fund equal to at least four months of expenses in a fully liquid account. Additionally, I recommend having a secondary emergency fund equal to another three months of expenses in semi-liquid investments. Increase your liquidity if you have above average volatility in your life due to job instability, rental properties or other risk factors.

4. Always save at least 10% of your income –
Regardless of whether you are saving to fund your emergency fund or retirement you should always pay yourself first by saving at least 10% of your income. Most of us need to be saving closer to 15% to meet our retirement needs.

5. Pay-off Credit Cards and Consumer Debt –
Learn the difference between bad debt (credit cards) and good debt (fixed-rate home mortgage). Avoid the bad debt and take advantage of the leveraging power of good debt.

6. Take Advantage of the Leveraging Power of Owning Your Home –
Once you have established an emergency fund and have paid off your bad debt start saving for a down payment to purchase your own home.

7. Fully Fund Your Retirement Accounts be a tax smart investor –
Participate in tax advantaged retirement programs for which you qualify. Maximize your Roth IRA and 401k contribution take full advantage of any company match on your 401k. If you are self-employed consider a SEP or Simple plan. Always select investment vehicles that provide the most beneficial tax solution while meeting your investment objectives.

8. Be an Investor, Not a Trader. Don’t time the market and don’t let emotions drive your investment decisions –
Investing in the stock market is a long term endeavor, forecasting the short-term movement of the stock market is fruitless. Avoid emotional reactions to headlines and short-term events. Don’t overreact to sensationalistic journalists or chase the latest investment trends. You can establish a defensive position by maintaining a well diversified portfolio custom tailored to your unique situation. Slow and steady wins the race!
“Far more money has been lost by investors in preparing for corrections, or anticipating corrections, than has been lost in the corrections themselves.”  -Peter Lynch, author and former mutual fund manager with Fidelity Investments

9. Don’t Invest in anything you don’t understand and be aware of high fees and penalties –
If it sounds too good to be true and you just can’t get your head around it, don’t invest in it! If you want to invest in complicated products, read the fine print. Be aware of commissions, fees and surrender charges. Be especially wary of products with a contingent deferred sales charge. There is no free lunch, if you are being promised above market returns there is probably a catch. Keep in mind that contracts are written to protect the insurance or investment company not the investor.

10. Diversify, Diversify, Diversify – rebalance annually –
It is impossible to predict fluctuations in the market or to select the next great stock. However, you can hedge your bets by maintaining a well diversified portfolio. Establish an asset allocation that is aligned with your goals, investment timeframe and risk tolerance. You should have a good mix of fixed income and equity based investments. Your equity investments should be spread over a wide variety of large, small, domestic and international companies and industries. Re-balance your portfolio on an annual basis to stay diversified and weed out any underperforming investments.