Money Mistakes to Avoid – 3

The last two posts in this series have been primarily about saving early and wisely. But what if you didn’t do that in your past and now have a lot of debt? What should I do first, save or pay off debt?

It’s a question commonly asked by clients and friends facing this dilemma. If you have enough income our first suggestion is to do both. Develop a plan of systematic debt payments and saving contributions that you can manage within your budget. But many people who pose this question feel that they are not in a position to do both simultaneously. In this case, saving money instead of paying off high-interest debt would be a huge mistake.

True if your only savings is your emergency reserve, paying off your debt first can be risky. But it’s a risk you have to take if you ever want to be debt-free. Here’s why. Once again it comes down to the math.

Notice we referenced HIGH-INTEREST debt. If you put money into a typical savings account (with the “high yield” ones currently offering about 1%) instead of making larger payments on a debt that has an interest rate of 30%, you’re still paying 29% and not doing anything to shorten the length of time you’re paying that debt off. Unless you pay the debt off quickly it doubles in about 2 and 1/2 years according to the Rule of 72. By saving instead of paying off the debt quickly you would be trading freedom from debt for a sense of security that depending on other financial circumstances may not be genuine.

So how do you take this risk of paying debt off first responsibly?

One option is begin by focusing on paying off the smallest debt first. Pay more than the minimum on that debt while maintaining minimum payments on the others. Once the first debt is eliminated, you can either roll that payment amount on to the next smallest debt or split the payment amount between your savings and the next lowest balance. Repeat this process until all your debts are gone. An alternative strategy is paying off the debt with the highest interest rate first thus saving yourself added interest payments.

Other options to consider when eliminating debt is consolidation to zero or low-interest rate credit lines or debt relief programs. At the end of it all there is no one size fits all approach to the question of whether to save or pay off debt first. If you are unable to decide which method would work best in your situation, consult with your banker or other financial professional for a personalized plan.

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