Should Cal and Rick Pay Down Debt or Save for Retirement?

There is a natural, and understandable, instinct in most of us to want to pay off our mortgage as soon as possible. In fact, it’s considered a kind of rite of passage. Yep, the missus and I paid off the house and finally have the kids off the payroll, now we can save for our retirement! But, is paying down your house or other debt early really the right thing to do for your long-term best interest?

Let’s take a closer look at a couple of common situations people face:

1. Cal owns a home for him and his family that is reasonably-priced for his family’s income with a monthly payment that allows them to pay all their expenses with a little left over. What should they do with that “extra” money each month? Pay down their mortgage or save and invest for their future? From a math perspective, Cal’s decision should be based on his after-tax cost of borrowing versus his after-tax return on investing. So, let’s assume Cal has a 30-year mortgage at 4% interest and he and his wife are in the 30% tax bracket. The true cost of that debt is 2.8% because mortgage interest is tax-deductible. So, 4% rate minus 30% equals 2.8%.

Cal’s financial planner tells him that his investments – in his 401(k) and his wife’s 403(b) – should earn a 7% annual average return, if averaged over the long term. Since that rate of return is in tax-deferred accounts, we won’t deduct income taxes from the 7% return.

So, comparing where to put that “extra” money is quite simple, right? 7% is more than 2.8%, so that’s where the dollars should go. Carrying a low-interest mortgage and investing extra dollars into your retirement is a wise decision since your investments will have a better return than what the debt is costing you. In other words, Cal will be better off investing at 7% than avoiding a cost of 2.8%.

2. Rick has a good income because he went to a good university and graduate school but he has student loan debt. Should he put his “extra” money into paying down his student loans or into his retirement accounts? First, we would tell Rick to, at the very least, put enough into his retirement accounts to receive the match from his employer. Don’t give away the free money. After that, the calculation is the same as above. This time let’s assume the student loan interest rate is 6.5%. Let’s also assume that Rick’s financial planner tells him he can expect to earn an average of 7% over the long term from his investments. As a high-earner, Rick is in the 35% tax bracket. As most student loan debt is not tax-deductible, we won’t lower the interest rate for comparison. And, as above, Rick’s investments are in his work 403(b), we won’t lower the return number either.

So, should Rick pay down his loans or sock more into retirement? Although the student loan interest rate is lower than the rate of return from his investments, it is close enough that he should put that “extra” money into paying down his student loan debt. (We would recommend he explore refinancing his student loans to get a lower rate but that’s for another discussion)

Student loan debt is a deterrent to saving enough for retirement for many young people and all options should be explored in order to put your money to work for your future self as soon as possible.

Like many things, debt is okay in moderation and under the right conditions, if it helps us purchase things that will help us. Debt for a home with a competitive interest rate at a payment that allows you to pay your expenses and save for retirement – probably good. Six-month old credit card debt for Chinese food you can’t even remember eating – probably bad. As always, having a plan to retire debt and reach your goal of financial freedom will help get you to both faster.

If you want to examine your own personal situation, use the online calculator here:


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