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Is it smarter to save for retirement or pay off debt first?

Is it smarter to save for retirement or pay off debt first?
Washington University students in St. Louis pull a mock ball and chain representing $1.4 trillion in outstanding student debt. (Paul J. Richards / AFP/Getty Images)

Dear Liz: I graduated from college in May and began a full-time job in October making $36,000. I also do freelance work and receive anywhere from $500 to $1,000 a month from that. I live at home, so I don't have to pay for rent or groceries, which really helps. Currently, I have just over $18,800 in student loans at an average interest rate of 4.45%. I have also opened a Roth IRA.

My plan currently is to contribute $500 a month to my IRA in order to max it out, and pay $700 a month to my student loans in order to get them out of the way quickly. Or is it better to skip the Roth and put that extra $500 toward my student loans? That way, I would be debt free when I move out of my parents’ house next year. The stock market has done nothing but fall since I opened my account, and I am reading that it could do the same this year as well. But I have also read that it's good to just keep consistently contributing to an IRA when your debt isn't high-interest to reap the rewards of compounded returns.

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Answer: It’s generally a good idea to start the habit of saving for retirement early and not stop. What the market is doing now doesn’t really matter. It’s what the market does over the next four or five decades that you should care about, and history shows that stocks outperform every other investment class over time.

The $6,000 you contribute this year could grow to about $100,000 by the time you’re in your 60s, if you manage an average annual return of around 7%. (The stock market’s long-term average is closer to 8%.) And Roth IRAs are a pretty great way to invest, because withdrawals are tax-free in retirement.

That said, your other option isn’t a bad idea either. You are not proposing to put off retirement savings for years while you pay off relatively low-rate debt, which clearly would be a bad idea. Instead, what you’re losing is the opportunity to fund a Roth for one year. That’s an opportunity you can’t get back — but you could fully fund the Roth next year, and perhaps use some of your freelance money to fund a SEP IRA or solo 401(k) as well.

Either way, you should be fine.

Claiming Social Security can get complicated

Dear Liz: I am 63 years old, born in November 1955. My husband and I divorced five years ago after 37 years of marriage. I work full time and plan to continue until age 70 at least. Am I eligible for the option of applying for restricted benefits under my ex-husband’s Social Security when I turn 66 and then switching to my maximum benefit at age 70? He was always a much higher wage earner than I was, and I'm confused about whether I qualify for any of his Social Security benefits.

Answer: You’re not eligible to file a restricted application for spousal benefits, which would allow you to claim a benefit based on a husband’s or ex-husband’s benefit while allowing your own benefit to grow. Congress eliminated the restricted application option for people born on or after Jan. 2, 1954. Instead, when you apply for benefits, you’ll be “deemed” to be applying for both your own retirement benefit and any spousal or divorced spousal benefit to which you might be entitled, and will essentially get the larger of the two. You can’t switch later.

Something you should keep in mind: Although your own benefit can grow 8% each year you delay, between ages 66 and 70, spousal benefits don’t earn such delayed-retirement credits. There’s no incentive, in other words, for you to wait beyond age 66 to claim Social Security if the spousal benefit is going to be the larger of the two benefits you could receive.

Social Security claiming rules can be complicated. If you don’t have a trusted financial advisor who is well versed in claiming strategies, consider spending $40 or so for a service such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com, which can analyze your particular situation and suggest the smartest option.

Liz Weston, certified financial planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon Blvd., No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the "Contact" form at AskLizWeston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.

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