Tag Archives: retirement savings

Am I Better Off Investing or Paying Down Debt?

Emergency Fund vs. Paying Off Debt - Which should you contribute to first?This is the fourth installment in our series on how individual investors can assess their financial health.

A common dilemma in personal finance is whether to use funds to pay down debt faster or to invest more. The question crops up in various forms:

 

  • Should I pay off all credit card debt or make smaller payments while saving more for retirement?
  • Should I pay extra on my mortgage or invest in securities?
  • Should I pay down my student loans faster or invest more?

Financial health requires both savings and control over debt. But when these two goals seem to be in conflict, what’s the best way to balance them? Consider these six ways to prioritize.

  1. Make sure you get your employer match. If you’re lucky enough to have an employer that matches your contributions to the workplace 401(k) plan, your first priority is to maximize the employer match. It’s too good to pass up. Contribute any less than what’s matched, and you’re refusing the offer of free money.
  2. Tackle costly credit card debt. Once you are saving enough to secure your entire employer match, you can focus on paying down debts faster. The goal is to pay off all credit card debt as quickly as possible. The interest rates on credit card debt are typically so high that nothing else you do with your money is likely to be as profitable.
  3. Beef up your emergency fund. When you’re beyond the hurdle of credit card debt, consider building out your emergency fund.  If you don’t have sufficient emergency savings to cover a serious car repair, a trip to the emergency room or other not-so-infrequent disasters, this is the next focus.
  4. Save enough in retirement accounts. Assuming you have no credit card debt and decent emergency savings, you can move on to the next set of priorities. If you are saving less than 10% of your pretax income in retirement accounts, ramping up your contributions is probably a better bet than paying extra on your student or auto loans or mortgage. Contributions to retirement accounts are tax advantaged, and it is almost impossible to catch up if you delay retirement savings.
  5. Decide whether to save more or pay down your mortgage. Only when you have no credit card debt, a healthy emergency fund, and you’re saving at least 10% of your pretax income should you consider making additional investments or speeding up your mortgage payments.

But when you compare the cost of having a mortgage to the possible returns from investing elsewhere, don’t forget the tax deduction on mortgage interest. Because of that deduction, your effective (after-tax) interest rate on your mortgage is lower than your actual mortgage rate. There are handy online calculators that can quickly calculate the effective interest rate on your mortgage, accounting for tax benefits.

If you are confident that you can invest at a rate of return that’s at least as high as your effective mortgage rate, you may want to hang on to the mortgage and invest more.  Over the past few years, many consumers have taken out mortgages with effective interest rates of 3% or less.  At this level of interest, there are investment alternatives that make more sense.

Also remember that extra principle payments come with liquidity risk. That is, if you need a source of cash, it may be easier to sell a security investment. To take cash out on your mortgage, you will have to refinance or open a line of credit.  Either of these may come with a higher cost than your current mortgage, not to mention origination fees.

  1. Decide whether to save more or pay down college debts. If your income is below $75,000 per year ($155,000 for a couple filing jointly), some or all of the interest that you pay on college loans may be tax deductible. So the effective rate of interest on your college loans may be lower than the actual rate. Take that into account when you compare your loan interest with potential investment earnings.

An additional consideration may be whether a parent or grandparent cosigned your student loans.  If you become disabled or die—or you’re simply unemployed for a long period of time, your consignors may have to pay your college loans.  That risk may make it worthwhile to pay off college loans faster.

Accounting for Uncertainty

If you could be sure that you’ll never lose your job and that you’ll always be able to open a low-cost line of credit, the decision to pay off debts would be much easier.  But you have to look beyond comparing interest rates on debt to the expected returns from investments. You have to consider that credit may not always be available at today’s rates.

With mortgage rates as low as they are now, paying down a mortgage does not look like the most attractive choice. Once you’ve paid off all high-cost revolving credit (e.g. credit cards), have a solid emergency fund, and you’re saving 10% of your income in retirement accounts, however, it’s worth considering paying down college debts.

Putting non-retirement money into risky investments like stocks before you have accomplished the milestones listed above makes your overall financial situation more risky.  Whether or not this is too much risk depends on you.

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How Much Do You Need to Save for Retirement?

In the financial advisory business, one of the most pressing and controversial topics is how much money people need to save during their working years in order to provide for long-term retirement income.  The research on this topic has evolved quite a lot in recent years, and a recent issue of Money magazine features a series of articles representing the current view on this critical topic.  These articles, based around interviews with a number of the current thought leaders on this topic, deserve to be widely read and discussed.

The series of articles in Money kicks off with perspectives by Wade Pfau.  Pfau’s introductory piece suggests a difficult future for American workers.  A traditional rule-of-thumb in retirement planning is called the 4% rule.  This rule states that a retiree can plan to draw annual income equal to 4% of the value of her portfolio in the first year of retirement and increase this amount each year to keep up with inflation.  Someone who retires with a $1 Million portfolio could draw $40,000 in income in the first year of retirement and then increase that by 2.5%-3% per year, and have a high level of confidence that the portfolio will last thirty years.  It is assumed that the portfolio is invested in 60%-70% stocks and 30%-40% bonds.  The 4% rule was originally derived based on the long-term historical returns and risks for stocks and bonds.  The problem that Pfau has noted, however, is that both stocks and bonds are fairly expensive today relative to their values over the period of time used to calculate the 4% rule.  For bonds, this means that yields are well below their historical averages and historical yields are a good predictor of the future return from bonds.  The expected return from stocks is partly determined by the average price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio, and the P/E for stocks is currently well-above the long-term historical average.  High P/E tends to predict lower future returns for stocks, and vice versa.  For a detailed discussion of these relationships, see this paper.  In light of current prices of stocks and bonds, Pfau concludes that the 4% rule is far too optimistic and proposes that investors plan for something closer to a 3% draw rate from their portfolios in retirement.  I also explored this topic in an article last year.

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60-Second Retirement Savings and Income Checkup

I think that the American public has largely tuned out the myriad studies showing that most households are woefully under-saving for retirement.  Even if we’d prefer not to think about this issue, however, it is crucial to regularly check on how we are doing.  There are two major questions.  First, during your working years, are you saving enough?  Second, during retirement, how much income can you sustainably plan to draw from your savings each year?  The good news is that there are some simple tools that you can use to do a fast estimate of how you are doing, how much you need to save to stay on track, or how to get on track. Continue reading

Saving and Investing for Retirement: Part Two

Figuring Out Whether You Are On Track: Part Two of Our Special Five Part Series

Fidelity just came out with a study that estimates that people will need about eight times their final salary level, assuming they work until age sixty seven, to be able to retire and subsequently to have 85% of their pre-retirement income provided from retirement savings plus social security.  Fidelity also helpfully provides estimates of what they believe people need to have acquired at different ages. Continue reading

The Disappearing Retirement

Well-known financial columnist Robert Powell has a recent article in MarketWatch titled, “Retirement in America is ‘Endangered.” The motivation for this piece, he writes, is that retirement preparedness is a crucially important topic that was missed in the recent State of The Union address by President Obama.

Powell goes on to list the key problems with the current ‘state of retirement’ in the United States:

1) Under-funding of Social Security
2) Low savings rates
3) Poor market returns over recent years
4) Inadequate levels of financial literacy
5) Half of American workers have no employer-sponsored retirement plan

All of these issues are critically important. In just one or two generations, we have shifted from a society in which employers provided lifetime retirement income via traditional pension plans, to one in which individuals now must manage every aspect of their financial futures, including how much to save and how to invest their retirement savings. The good news is that each of these five issues can be solved if we have the will to solve them. Continue reading

The Peril of Underfunded Public Pensions

There is no question that the promises made by state government pension plans are a major challenge to the future financial health of U.S. states. Many states pensions are already dramatically under-funded. A recent study suggests that the aggregate under-funding in state budgets, including pensions, is over $4 trillion. A 2010 analysis, the definitive research to date, finds that the unfunded state pension promises amount to $2.5 trillion.

What do these kinds of numbers really mean in practical terms? Continue reading

Why You Don’t Have to Occupy Wall Street

MyPlanIQ recently ran an interesting article in their weekly newsletter regarding the Occupy Wall Street movement and the overwhelming wealth disparity in the world. What we liked about this article was the actionable advice towards the end that 401(k) plan participants can take to retain control over building their own wealth—without having to march on Wall Street. Continue reading