Pay Down Debt or Save? Which Is Better?

pablo-garcia-saldana-94058-unsplash.jpg

Did you know that the average person under the age of 35 has about $67,000 in debt? For most people in this age gap, that includes student loans and credit cards, but can include other things like car or personal loans, healthcare bills, and so on. Whatever the bills are for, that level of debt can feel like a huge burden to the person carrying it. 

What about you? Do you fall into this debt bracket? Even if you owe more or less than the projected average, debt is likely a factor in your financial life. Like 80% of Ameicans, you’ve probably struggled with the question: “How do I pay all of this off?” You may be looking at debt statements, wondering if you should put all your extra monthly cash towards the balance, or still have enough cash for a rainy day. And you’ve also probably worried about going back into debt if you don’t have enough cash saved for emergencies. But when all of your money is going to debt repayment, how can you save?

While some money gurus may tell you that you need to focus on one or the other, it’s important to understand a few things about debt repayment and savings before you make a decision.

Interest on Debt vs. Interest Gained on Savings

Unfortunately, debt accrues interest. While some car loans may have a 5% or lower interest rate, some credit cards can have an annual percentage rate (APR) of over 30%. On the other hand, some savings accounts have a minimal interest rate of less than 1%. Other high-yield savings accounts can offer over 2.5% annual percentage yield (APY). Alternative forms of savings, such as certificate deposits (CDs), may offer even higher APY, but have restrictions on when you can access your cash.

With this in mind, it’s easier to see the “mathematical” impact of debt vs savings. While you may be accruing 2% on a savings account, you may also be eating 30% on your credit card interest rate, which means your savings account will never make up the difference for your credit card.

So really, the question of savings vs. debt repayment isn’t “Should I pay down debt or save?” Instead, the question might be reframed: “How can I maximize my savings interest while minimizing my debt interest?” 

Action item:

Take a minute to look at the interest rates on your credit cards, student loans, and other debts. Is there a percentage that makes you cringe? That might just be the best place to focus your efforts. And on the other side of the coin, if you have a few grand to save in a high-yield account while still paying down your lower interest rate debts, that may be a good option for you. 

But there’s more to all of this than math.

Don’t Forget Your Goals

There’s another element that gets glossed over in the “Debt is Dumb” media message: your financial goals. While it’s always best to pay down debt in a timely manner, there may be instances where paying more to debt can actually harm your overall goals. Take, for example, a couple who really wanted to focus on funding their future travel goals. While they may both have student loan debt, they have a certain amount of flexible income per month and they want to save as much of that for the places they want to visit before having kids. For them, steady debt repayment and more aggressive saving may fit best with their needs.

On the other hand, a young woman who wants to reach financial independence by age 40 so she can work only when she wants may experience the opposite. In her case, paying down debt as fast as possible and then saving aggressively may make the most sense. 

Action item:

While the numbers or recommendations may advise one thing, you should always consider what you really want your money to do for you (but keep paying down those balances — no matter what!). 

Figure Out Your Liquid Cash Needs

Last but not least, consider liquidity in your decision. Liquid assets are assets that can be bought and sold quickly, and whose value doesn’t change drastically over time. Cash is the easiest example of liquid assets, while a bar of gold is sort of the opposite. With this definition in mind, consider any upcoming events or milestones that may require a lot of cash. Maybe you want to adopt a baby, buy a house, or fund your trip to Europe. If you realize that you have a need for liquid cash in the near or upcoming future, it may not be best to dump all cash reserves into your debt repayment. Paying debt down each month is not an option, but you may consider delaying additional payments until the reason for your liquid cash needs has passed.

It’s YOUR Life, so Do YOUR Math

You’ve probably heard that, before you start paying down debt, you need $1,000 for an emergency fund. This emergency fund is a great idea, especially for people who are in debt because they lacked savings to handle a previous emergency. But the truth is, 40% of Americans can’t afford a $400 emergency, let alone a $1,000 one. And how many emergencies do you know of that cost less than $1,000? A trip to the ER, a broken radiator, or a lost job can all cost more than $1,000. 

This is not to say that you shouldn’t be building your emergency fund — of course you should. The point is that money decisions are not one-size-fits-all. What works to pay down your debt and save may be different from the next person, and that’s OK. Do your own math (interest accrued vs. interest paid) and take into account your own goals so that you can create a debt repayment plan that makes you feel empowered, not stressed or stupid. They say “Debt is dumb,” but we think it’s just an obstacle to be overcome. 

signature.png