Ever wondered how to save money while paying off debt? It can totally be done, but you need some smart strategy behind it. Let me show you the numbers, and some solid strategies for saving while paying off debt.
For many of the choices you face each day, there is a clear winner.
Like, “do I fill up now that I'm on ‘E', or do I try to make it to the beach (2 hours away)?”
“Do I pick up my child from school, or do I allow him to spend the night on the curb?”
See, easy peasy choices here with clear and immediate consequences for going down the wrong path (ahem – if these choices are not easy, then you might want to reassess things).
And then there are the unusually sticky questions, made even more difficult to answer because you fear the potentially bad consequences from choosing the wrong option. These generally are questions where things are a bit more gray and the outcome may not be clear right away.
We're going to tackle one of these stickier financial questions today: should you or should you not pay off debt and save money at the same time?
Is it Better to Pay Off Debt or Save Money? (The Short Answer)
The answer with 100% financial motivation is the shortest one, so we'll start with it (warning: strictly financial answers are usually not the answer that will work for you. Why? Because you are a person with emotions, needs, and wants. Think about it: if answers that make 100% financial sense were the ones that worked, then the Personal Savings Rate in America would be huge and the debt load would be minimal…yet it's the complete opposite).
Financial Answer: you go with whatever way is going to get you the most return on your money.
Financially speaking, if the interest rate you would earn on the money you put into savings would be higher than the interest you are paying in debt, then you would want to save as much of your money as possible and pay as little of your debt as possible (the bare minimums). If your debt interest rate is higher than what you would earn if you put your money into a savings account, then you would want to pay as much of your debt off as possible.
What's the More Realistic Answer?
Ultimately, you need to decide what makes sense for you + your situation.
I know, I know…that sounds like a cop out.
But I'm going to hopefully make your choice much easier by not only sharing with you what my husband, Paul, and I did in this situation, but also share several other strategies to choose from.
Financial Backups Besides Money in the Bank
The real trick is that no matter what you decide to do, you need to keep enough in savings or have enough backups so that you feel safe and not financially vulnerable.
Did I mention you want to try to set things up so that you won't take on more debt in an emergency?
Below are some financial backups you may already have that will help you pick the right strategy for you in the next step:
- Insurance Policies: What types of insurance policies do you have, and what would you be liable to pay in the form of deductibles and copays in the event of an emergency?
- Roth IRA Contributions: Did you know that you can withdraw the contributions you made to a Roth IRA penalty-free? I do not recommend this, but it is good to know your full picture.
- Ability to Work Overtime at Will: Do you or your partner work at a job where you can easily pick up overtime whenever you'd like?
Sit down and figure out what your financial backups are (beyond money in the bank), and then keep reading.
Can You Pay Off Debt and Save Money at the Same Time? Strategies that Can Make Sense for You
Everyone's situation varies. That means that some strategies make more sense for some and not for others. For example, if you have kids or a variable rate on your mortgage that could increase your monthly payments at any time, then you likely want to keep more in savings before tackling your debt above the minimum payments. But if your costs and obligations are relatively low, then you can focus more intensely on debt repayment and have less in savings to tide you over in the meantime.
Here are some strategies to answer the question of how much you to send to savings versus send to debt:
- One for You, One for Me Approach: Fund your emergency savings with a few months' worth of money. Then, any money you make above your bills (which includes debt repayment), send half into debt payments and the other half into your savings.
- Toxic Debt First, then Rebalance: Categorize your debt to figure out which is toxic debt (high interest rates that have the potential to sink you, such as credit card/medical/payday loan debt) and which is more neutral debt. Focus on getting rid of toxic debt first and put savings second. When you are out of the toxic debt, do a more balanced approach to debt and saving at same time.
- Gazelle Intense with Minimum Financial Guardrails: Keep enough in savings to cover deductibles on your various insurance policies, then funnel everything else (above bills) to debt.
Note: Always pay at least the minimum on each of your debts no matter which strategy you choose.
What We Did While We were Paying Off Debt
My husband Paul and I faced this question at one point as well. It was the summer of 2009 and we had just gotten engaged (*squee!*). One of the first things we resolved to do was to vanquish the rest of our combined $25,000 in debt before walking down the aisle.
We were completely focused on getting out of debt. Well, that and not getting into more debt in the months ahead as we paid for our wedding and put a down payment on our first home.
So what we did was figured out how much we would need to send in each month in order to have the remaining debt paid off by our wedding day (divided our debt by the number of months 'til the chapel). Then, anything left over after paying our bills and making this debt repayment each month was put into savings for our big upcoming purchases (house + wedding).
In other words, we used the “Gazelle Intense with Minimum Financial Guardrails” strategy from above.
Our Backups: You might be wondering why we so brazenly spent most of our savings on getting out of consumer debt, getting married, and buying a home. The reason why we took this rash move is because we had backup plans in case an emergency crept up while rebuilding our emergency fund. For example, we had $1,500 sitting on the sidelines in a money market fund at a brokerage firm that we could easily liquidate for emergencies. We also each have Roth IRAs. While we would never want to tap these for money, we knew that we could take out the contributions we made tax and penalty-free in the event of an emergency. Finally, we each had established credit lines. Of course it would have stunk to go back into debt right after getting out of it, but we saw these as a last resort to float us for the 30-day grace period.
The thing is, whether you are paying off debt or saving money but still in debt, you are actually still moving forward. This is because net worth calculations include both assets and liabilities. If you plug in your information into a net worth calculator (I've used this free one for years), and you add in savings or debt reductions, you'll see that both affect your overall level of wealth.