Oh, but you wanted to know, which first? It’s a question that virtually every client asks me, but the answer is (as with so many things) it depends. So, I’m going to suggest you work through this checklist.
You should always pay off the minimum required payment on your loan. If you don’t do that, you’re in a world of hurt and that’s a topic for another time. But I’m going to assume that you can scrape up at least a little more than that and you’re wondering where you should put it. BTW, I’m going to be thinking mostly of education loans, but this advice also applies to credit cards and home mortgages.
- Do you have an emergency fund?
Without an emergency fund, you’ll never get out of debt. We don’t know what the emergency will be, but we know that they come up fairly regularly. See my post here for more discussion. No emergency fund, no extra loan payoff.
While I like to see an emergency fund of 3-6 months necessary expenses (including loan payments!), it can take people just starting out a couple of years to build to that level. A $1,000 emergency fund is barely survival (one vet bill or car accident deductible can easily wipe that out.) Once you have at least $3-$5,000 in your emergency fund, you can begin to consider other possibilities, but I can’t advise going whole hog until the fund equals at least your health insurance deductible + out of pocket max + rent, utilities, and loan payment for however long it might take you to find a new job.
- Are you contributing enough to your employer’s retirement fund to get the match?
If your employer matches your contribution, that’s a 100% return on your money up to the amount of the match, e.g., if you contribute 1.5% and they match it at 1.5%. If you contribute 3% and they match 1.5%, that’s a 50% return. (We could keep going—you contribute my recommended minimum of 10%, they match at 3%–30% return). No legit credit card or high interest loan is going to charge you 30% interest. Plus, you get an additional return on this investment and maybe a tax deduction, although I recommend you go with a Roth option if you have it.
Before paying extra on any loans, you should contribute anything you can scrape up until you at least get the full match.
- Are you saving enough for retirement?
This is actually a different question than the one above. You need to be saving 10% of your income toward retirement, and more if you didn’t start until your mid-30s or later. Until you can put away at least 10%, in most cases I recommend you focus on retirement savings rather than early loan payment.
- What’s the interest rate on the loan compared to your investment return?
As a rule of thumb, I use 5% as a basic cut point. If you’re a dummy and keep all your money in a savings account, you’re earning .5%-2%, so take it and pay off the loan. But let’s say you have a pretty good investment (maybe, quality mutual funds) and you’re earning an annualized rate of 6-8%.
What’s the interest rate on your loans? Credit cards at 22%? Pay them off as soon as you can. I still recommend that you contribute to the retirement plan first, but maybe only for the minimum match until you get rid of the high interest payments.
Student loans at 6-7.75%? As soon as you’re contributing at least 10% to retirement savings, start attacking these loans. They’re as high or higher than you’re going to earn from investments. Even if your employer only matches at 1.5% and you’re contributing 10%, you’re making 15% immediately + investment gain. However, I can wrap my mind around going after these once you’ve secured the minimum match. It’s not a numbers answer, it’s what will make you feel better.
Student loans at 3.25-4%? I wouldn’t rush to pay these off before term. You’d be better off saving more, even if it isn’t in a retirement account—a quality balanced or target date fund should produce better returns. However, if you have managed to accrue an emergency fund of 6 months fixed expenses, a “goals” fund for whatever your goals are (kid’s college, house down payment, etc.) and you just really want to be debt free, then you should do what will make you feel better. These are pretty far down the totem pole, however.
Mortgage? Mortgage interest rates are really low right now, so in most cases there’s no financial reason to pay them off rather than investing any excess money. There are a couple of exceptions: let’s say you have a big bonus or sudden inheritance, and your family might qualify for college financial aid. You might be better off paying off or paying down the mortgage since the value of the house isn’t counted on the FAFSA (it is on the CSS-Profile), whereas an investment account will be counted as available for paying. The second situation is retirement: most people I talk to feel better when they own their home outright at retirement, since it’s probably the biggest monthly outlay. Just be sure you have enough for unexpected repairs before you clean out cash to pay off the mortgage. You don’t want to be back borrowing on a line of credit at a higher rate.
As with all things financial, your mileage may vary. There are a lot of moving parts to consider when contemplating loans, and achieving the right balance isn’t the same for everyone. But that’s why people talk to a financial advisor, no?