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Pay Down Debt or Save and Invest?

There are certainly a variety of strategies for paying off debt, many of which can reduce how long it will take to pay off the debt and the total interest paid. But should you pay off the debt? Or should you save and invest? To find out, compare what rate of return you can earn on your investments versus the interest rate on the debt. There may be other factors that you should consider as well.

Rate of return on investments versus interest rate on debt

Probably the most common factor used to decide whether to pay off debt or to make investments is to consider whether you could earn a higher after-tax rate of return on the investments than the after-tax interest rate on the debt if you were to invest your money instead of using it to pay off the debt.

For example, say you have a credit card with a $10,000 balance on which you pay nondeductible interest of 18%. You would generally need to earn an after-tax rate of return greater than 18% to consider making an investment rather than paying off the debt. So, if you have $10,000 available to invest or pay off debt and the outlook for earning an after-tax rate of return greater than 18% isn't good, it may be better to pay off the debt than to make an investment.

On the other hand, say you have a mortgage with a $10,000 balance on which you pay deductible interest of 6%. If your income tax rate is 28%, your after-tax cost for the mortgage is only 4.32% (6% x (1 - 28%)). You would generally need to earn an after-tax rate of return greater than 4.32% to consider making an investment rather than paying off the debt. So, if you have $10,000 available to invest or pay off debt and the outlook for earning an after-tax rate of return greater than 4.32% is good, it may be better to invest the $10,000 rather than using it to pay off the debt.

Of course, it isn't an all-or-nothing choice. It may be useful to apply a strategy of paying off debts with high interest rates first, and then investing when you have a good opportunity to make investments that may earn a higher after-tax rate of return than the after-tax interest rate on the debts remaining.

Say, for example, you have a credit card with a $10,000 balance on which you pay 18% nondeductible interest. You also have a mortgage with a $10,000 balance on which you pay deductible interest of 6%, and your tax rate is 28%. So, if you have $20,000 available to invest or pay off debt, it may make sense to pay off the credit card with $10,000 and invest the remaining $10,000.

When investing, keep in mind that, in general, the higher the rate of return, the greater the risk, which can include the loss of principal. If you make investments rather than pay off debt and your investments incur losses, you may still have debts to pay, but will you have the money needed to pay them?

Some other considerations

When deciding whether to pay down debt or to save and invest, you might also consider the following.

  • What are the terms of your debt? Are there any penalties for prepayment?
  • Do you actually have money that you could invest? Most debts have minimum payments that must be paid each month. Failure to make the minimum payment can result in penalties, increased interest rates, and default. Are your funds needed to make those payments?
  • How much debt do you have? Is it a problem? How do you feel about debt? Is it something you can easily live with or does it make you uncomfortable?
  • If you say you will save the money, will you really invest it or will you spend it? If you pay off the debt, you will have assured instant savings by eliminating the need to come up with the money needed to pay the interest on the debt.
  • Would you be able to borrow an additional amount, if needed, and at what interest rate, if you paid off current debt? Do you have an emergency fund, or other source of funds, that could be used if you lose your job or have a medical emergency, or would you have to borrow?
  • If your employer matches your contributions in a 401(k) plan, you should generally invest in the 401(k) to get the matching contribution. For example, if your employer matches 50% of your contributions up to 6% in a 401(k) plan, getting the 50% match is like getting an instant 50% return on your contribution. In addition, there are tax advantages to investing in a 401(k) plan.