I’ve gotten a few variations of this question recently:
I’ve only got about $5,000 in savings and about $4,000 in credit card debt. I’m not sure if I should pay off my cards first before I decide to invest or what. I’m just looking for a way to make my money work harder. – Michael, New Investor
I indirectly addressed this topic in my post titled You Have Some Money. Where Do You Put It?, where the my top 4 were listed as:
- Invest in your 401(k), if you have one, up until the match.
- Pay down your high-interest credit card debt.
- Create an emergency fund with at least 2 months.
- Fully fund your Roth IRA.
If you read through the many thoughtful follow-up comments, you’ll see that many people have differing views on this. I’ll try to clarify my own positions here, but although I will try to provide good reasons behind then, I do agree that this is all very subjective. As usual, the ultimate goal is to present all the arguments in order to help everyone better determine their own personal solution.
#1 Invest in your 401(k), if you have one, up until the match.
Many employers offer matching 401(k) contributions. So if you contribute $100 from your paycheck, your employer will also chip in $50-$100. This is an instant 50-100% return… Some would even call this free money! Unless your credit card interest rates are over 50%, mathematically you are ahead by far. In addition, you have now started your nest egg for retirement.
Exception: The benefit of this match gets a little hazy as often you have to work for a number of years before the matched amount “vests”, or officially becomes yours. You may never actually get to keep much of the match if you only work for a year or two, so take your long-term prospects into account.
#2 Pay down your high-interest credit card debt.
Here we reach one critical debate: Paying Down Debt vs. Roth IRA. On one side, we have high interest (say, over 8% right now) debt. On the other, we have the opportunity for tax-free growth.
My argument here is, again, simple math. If on one hand you have money in stocks growing (maybe) at 10% tax-free, and on the other hand you have money shrinking at 18% with no tax deductions, you’re still losing money! Therefore, I feel the best general decision is put all that money towards your debt. Yes, saving now may mean much larger balances later, but remember, here you are choosing one or the other here, and not paying off the credit cards puts you behind.
The counterargument to this is that you only get to put in $4,000 in a Roth every year and that is precious. You can’t put nothing in this year and $8,000 next year. If you are sure that your tax rate to be higher in retirement than now, and you don’t expect to have access to other similar options like a Roth 401(k) or 403(b) in the future, then I can see how putting money towards the Roth may be better.
(Now that I think of it, another reason might be that Roth IRAs are protected in case you decide to wipe out all your credit card debt in bankruptcy court…)
Exception: One should always try to lower their interest rates if possible by calling the credit card issuers directly or, if your credit is high enough, try to get a low interest balance transfer onto another card.
#3 Create an emergency fund with at least 2 months.
Here is another hard question: Where does an emergency fund play into all of this? Overall, I think people should pay down their high-interest debts as much as possible before saving up 6-12 months of emergency funds.
Why? For one thing, if an emergency does occur, many expenses can be simply be put back onto those same credit cards: utilities, food, clothing, medical bills, etc. Other things like rent can be paid via cash advance. Since it’s most likely an emergency won’t occur, you’ll be saving a lot of interest by paying off the high-interest debt now.
The reason I put 2 months down is because I wanted to designate this a “barebones” emergency fund. The actual amount needed depends heavily on the individual: How stable is your job? Do you have disability insurance? Would your parents or someone else bail you out?
Fully fund your Roth IRA.
Although you can withdraw your contributions out of a Roth if you need to, the Roth should be a last resort. Therefore, you have the “barebones” emergency fund first, and then the Roth IRA. Should a Roth be above even a barebones emergency fund? That’s a judgment call. In my mind, a barebones emergency fund is maybe $2,000. Otherwise, you’re literally living paycheck-to-paycheck, during which I would worry about now first before the future and Roth IRAs.
Exceptions: As noted earlier, the Roth IRA is really only better than a Traditional IRA or 401k if you expect your marginal tax rate to be higher in retirement than when you make your contributions. If you expect them to be the same, they are essentially equal, with the Roth taking perhaps a slight edge. Here’s the math showing why… Say you have $10,000 pre-tax income to contribute, 25% marginal income tax rate both now and in retirement, 8% annual return, and a 30 year horizon.
401k (pay tax later):
( 10,000 x 1.08^30 ) [compounding] x ( 1 – .25%[tax later] ) = $75,469
Roth (pay tax now):
( 10,000 x ( 1 – .25%[tax now] ) )x (1.08^30) [compounding] = $75,469
If your tax now > tax later, the 401k comes out ahead. If tax now < tax later, the Roth wins. Please share your thoughts in the comments, if I haven't confused you completely already...