That’s a question that a lot of people ask while in debt. Dave Ramsey, possibly the most popular debt counselor, recommends that you stop ALL retirement saving while eliminating debt. He argues that it gives you a huge advantage because you have a lot more money for your debt snowball.
I am a little more liberal when it comes to this rule. I think that it should be based on some other factors as well. For example, our current pile of debt is so large that we will be missing out on 5+ years of retirement saving (the amount of time it’s going to take us to pay off this debt). When you add compound interest into the equation, it means that we would be missing out on a lot more money. Let me give you our situation as an example:
I currently work for the Government and am offered a 5% match for money I put into the Thrift Savings Plan (fancy government word for 401k). That means that for every dollar I put into the plan, they match me 100% up to a 5% of my income. That’s a guaranteed 100% return on my money and I can invest it in any of their funds. However, if I didn’t contribute to the plan, I would miss out on that free money. Plus, I would miss out on 5+ years of compound interest.
Now, I am going to put some numbers to the scenario. Let’s say I start putting 5% of my income (plus the match) into the plan starting today (age 25). By the time I reach age 70, I will have almost $2.5 million in the account assuming an 8% return. Now, if I wait 6 years (best case scenario for debt repayment) and start investing the same amount per year, I will only have $1.7 million in the account. Still not bad, but almost $800,000 less than if I would have started at 25. Here is a graph of this example:
So, as you can see, starting to save for retirement 6 years from now instead of today will cost me about $800,000 in retirement savings by age 70. Am I really going to pay that much more in interest by not stopping my contributions? I don’t think so!
So, I guess the question is, when should you stop contributing to retirement in order to clean up your debts? Should you do it if you can get the debts paid off in 2 years or less? 4 years or less? What is the magic number?
All I can say is, I am not missing out on almost $800,000 in retirement growth to save MAYBE a couple thousand in interest charges.
What are your thoughts on the subject? Can you think of any reasons why I should be STOPPING my contributions?