Which Should I do First, Pay Off Student Loans or Invest?

Jen SmithDebt6 Comments

pay off debt or invest

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One of the many debates personal finance nerds love to talk about is whether to pay off student loans or invest? We go back and forth. Invest or pay off debt? Pay off debt or invest? Do both maybe? IDK.

As much as I hate having hard stances on debatable issues (I have a fatal flaw where I see multiple sides to every story) I’m taking a hard stance on this one. It’s partly because math doesn’t take sides and partly because math doesn’t change people.

You should pay off your student loans before you get a big head about investing for retirement.

There, I said it. It’s how I feel, it’s the truth I live, and here’s why:

I’ll start by stating that I’m not an investment and interest rate expert. But I am an expert in my story and my story happens to be drenched in personal finance experience so I’m going to be as universal as possible while speaking from my own perspective.

The Math That Matters

When I took out student loans the federal rate for graduate student loans was 6.8%. I signed up for auto-pay (something everyone should do) and got a .25% decrease in rate. That is still applicable today so my math is going to account for someone taking advantage of that deal.

I got through undergrad with no loans so I never experienced these low-interest rates the government says they give on student loans. 6.55% seems pretty high to me. It’s no credit card but it’s more than my mortgage and what my car loan was.

The average undergraduate debt for grads in 2015 was $31,100 with an interest rate of 4.45%. With auto-pay grads will pay 4.2% on their loans.

Average graduate debt is $57,600 for undergrad and graduate degrees so about $26,500 in just graduate loan debt. The interest rate for those loans is now 6%, or 5.75% with auto-pay.

Assuming our theoretical student is on a 10-year repayment plan the math looks like this:

Undergrad: $31,100 at 4.2% for 10 years= $318 monthly payment & $7,040 paid in interest over 10 years.

Graduate: $26,500 at 5.75% for 10 years= $290 monthly payment & $8,406 paid in interest over 10 years.

Total: $608 monthly payment for 10 years with $15,446 paid in interest

Hold up.

I’m doing Income-Based Repayment or Public Service Student Loan Forgiveness so I don’t need to pay my loans off. The gov will “forgive me.”

Why Income-Based Repayment & Public Service Studen Loan Forgiveness Can Suck

If you ever plan on being married, getting a better job, or just getting a raise, you’re going to want to rethink IBR and PSLF.

When I calculated our eligibility we’d definitely pay more over 20 years doing IBR. Then at the end, we’d be taxed on the forgiveness (basically the equivalent of a third income that’s higher than what both of us make.) And if you don’t pay your taxes in one payment then you’re charged interest on the payments until you pay it off! It’s a vicious and stupid cycle!

These programs are designed for people who’ve fallen on hard times. Not the millennial who regrets taking out $100,000 for a teaching degree. Participating in these programs willingly severely chains you to mediocrity and makes sure you won’t excel for the next 10-25 years. It is a bad idea to stake your financial future on government programs.

Now, with that off my chest.

What if our theoretical grad made a budget, got a side job, (got sober) and paid off their student loans in three years? Seem impossible? He or she would only need to come up with an extra $270 per week to do it.

And she’d save $10,310 in interest.

You could literally pay for your next in cash with the money you save by not giving it to the bank. Or you could invest it.

$10,310 invested over 30 years with a 6% return will make you an extra $47,000.

All Interest Compounds

It’s either working for you or against you. If you pay off your student loans you can always put investing on hold if times get tough and it won’t affect your credit score at all.

You can’t dodge student loans.

You can defer them, where interest accrues while you’re neither investing nor paying your debt. Or with private loans, that give much fewer leniencies when times get hard, stop paying them and watch your credit score plunge.

Why The Math Doesn’t Matter

The truth is, most of us aren’t making anywhere near the income it would take to make investing a higher priority than paying off your loans. I make less than $50K per year. If I should be putting away 10%-15% of my income to retire “on time” I’m left with about $35,000 to live on after taxes. Not much more there than rent, food, and a pedicure for the year.

So while interest accrues on the loan and interest builds on your investment you’re netting a whopping 1.65% on your return. Congratulations, you’re never going to retire!

Four years ago I didn’t care about my financial future. I was in my early twenties and I cared more about living my best life now than buying a house or retiring. It wasn’t until I made paying off my loans a priority that I started seeing the big picture.

I started caring about interest, credit, and not having to work until I die. I did the math and saw that freedom from student loans was possible and how much better off I’d be if I did it.

The real reason to pay off student loan before you invest is because the math doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is where you put your money.

Pay them off so you actually care, because that’s the only way you’re going to invest enough to retire well.

And this advice is all worthless if you take 10,15, or 20 years to pay off your student loans. You have to pay them off fast; you have to quit spending on “I want it now” stuff and learn frugality; you have to quit saying you don’t have time to work extra hours so you don’t have to work until you’re 80.

Do Something That Holds You Accountable

I highly suggest refinancing your student loans not just to get a lower rate but to hold you accountable for paying them off and guaranteeing you save that money on interest. People have the best of intentions when they say they’ll make extra payments on their loans but I know from experience those good intentions are bogus.

Try plugging your info into a program like LendEdu to see what rates you qualify for from different companies and take the plunge before you think too hard. Heck, take the five-year term if you can! Whatever gives you a friggen sense of urgency to HUSTLE.

The only way you learn this is by diving deep into the practice. It takes years to develop bad personal finance habits so you have to be intentional about breaking them.

So maybe you lose about $2,000 by not investing right away, I don’t know, I’m bad at math. But I’m good at developing habits. And you will make it back tenfold in the habits, skills, and grit you learn by having to hustle.

This one makes a really good point on whether to debt payoff or invest first.

6 Comments on “Which Should I do First, Pay Off Student Loans or Invest?”

  1. I am totally on board with this advice. For everyone that says they will invest instead of paying off their loans never invest that day, month or even year. They usually don’t even have the means or accounts set up to do that. They do, however, have the ability to make an extra payment on their loans that month. For every day that passes they pay more interest on their loans while not earning interest on the investments they said they would do. They also increase their risk by spreading their resources too thin. I say focus your efforts and you will be surprised at the results.

  2. Love it! Obviously, I’m a bit biased because I pretty much did the same thing as you did.

    What a lot of people seem to overplay is the starting off later with investing – that’s the typical argument I hear about why you should just keep investing and let the loans drag on. The way I see it though, if you just take a few years to pay off that debt, you can easily catch right back up with someone who’s been lightly investing for a few years.

    Even if you can’t catch up, all that means is that you have to keep investing for a year or two more to get to wherever you’re trying to get to. That’s nothing in the grand scheme of things, especially compared to holding debt for 10 years, 25 years, or however long someone might do that for.

    1. So true! And you get all the added emotional relief of not dragging it around. Such an undervalued concept in personal finance!

  3. Excellent! I feel like for most people just paying the debt off is the easiest most momentum gaining thing: unless you get an employer match, TAKE THAT MONEY!

    1. LOL. Yeah, I will say it’s worth taking a match if you can get it. Because that’s more like side hustling than investing 😉

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