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Stop 401(k) contributions to speed debt reduction?
DFA Reader James P. asked:
Should I stop 401(k) contributions of $546 a month to pay off the car loan faster??? This will bring my monthly excess for debt payments to $1100. I use the 50/50 plan (50% of excess income goes to pay down debt, 50% is saved).
Matt, I would like to say your blog is one of the first websites I check in the morning for inspiration and knowledge. My family of six embarked on the Dave Ramsey journey in June 2008. Since then, we’ve paid off $47,000. $34k of that was credit card debt (ALL GONE!!!!) My wife and I are 34 and our sons are 14, 13, 10, and 10 so we are very proud of ourselves and the amount we’ve paid off considering the responsibilities we have.
I am currently putting 7% in my 401(k) (receiving a 2.5% match). My wife is currently putting 4% (receiving a 1% match). Our remaining debts include a mortgage, a car loan ($32,000 @ 6.9%) on an ‘08 Toyota Sienna (worth $26,000) and two student loans (totaling $23,000 @ 6%). The Dave Ramsey plan would pay the smallest debt (a student loan) first, but I’m conflicted as to what to do next. My thought is pay off the car next because it is my biggest payment, but I would have to stop my (not my wife’s) 401(k) contributions to make it happen in 1 year. My fear is, if I stop the 401(k) contributions I will miss out on a significant rise in 2010. I will keep the student loans for now because they are tax deductible. Getting the car payment off me would lift an emotional burden but my 401(k) contributions are making me have second thoughts.
Anyone who has paid off nearly $50,000 in debt in two years deserves a pat on the back. You have been doing a great job, let’s have a look at your situation and see if we can help speed you toward debt free living.
Your Plan or Dave’s Plan?
You want to pay off your car because it carries a higher interest loan, but Dave says you should pay off a student loan, because it is smaller and he wants you to have fewer debts regardless of the numbers. Well, I agree with you. Dave’s debt snowball makes sense for people who lack motivation, have a multitude of smaller debts (3 credit cards, 4 store charge cards, and a couple major appliances) and can benefit from the visible progress of paying off individual debts. However, the amount you paid off this past year shows you are VERY motivated, and down to three big debts. The other reason I agree with you, is that the student loans are unsecured, your education cannot be repossessed, and while the tax deduction isn’t a great reason for keeping the loan around, when combined with the lower interest rate, it isn’t costing anywhere near as much as the car loan. You already owe more on the van than it’s worth, which is not a desirable situation.
A Better Rate of Return
Having established that your plan to pay off your vehicle before the student loans is sound, we will now look at how to do it. A 1-year timetable is a good goal; dragging debts out is never good and the amount is only slightly higher that what you paid off the last two years. You tell us the money you need to pay off your car in one year is currently being contributed to your 401(k). The way to do it then is obvious, your 401(k) contributions must be adjusted, and I am going to address how and why.
You are currently contributing 7% of your salary, and 4% of your wife’s into 401(k)’s although you are only being matched for 3.5% of those contributions. That means you have 7.5% of your salaries that I would consider “extra” contributions. I always recommend that people in debt (including a mortgage) not contribute any more to a retirement plan than is matched by an employer. When contributions are matched, you get a 100% return on investment with zero risk. There is no better investment than that, but for unmatched contributions to net a profit, they must produce returns in excess of what you pay in debt interest. On average, the stock market returns 8% over 30 years. While that is higher than the interest you pay on your debts, ask your self if a volatile investment with a 20-30 year timetable is worth 1%-2%. Paying off your debts offers an immediate guaranteed return of 6%-7% in your case. That is a much better deal.
Planning For an Uncertain Future
You mention your concern that next year may be a good year for the market, and you want to get in on it. Since none of us can know the future and because different “experts” are all just guessing anyway… I would counsel that your investment decisions should be based on where you are financially, not what the markets are doing. Get out of debt, save money, avoid future debt, then invest your surplus.
I would recommend reducing your and your wife’s 401(k) contributions to the amount that will be matched. You will then have the necessary money to pay off your car, then shift your attention to the student loans. Once they are gone, bring your emergency fund up to at least $10,000 if you have not already, and then turn the hoses on the mortgage. Once you are completely debt free, you will have the excess income necessary to max out your 401(k) contributions (as well as a Roth IRA if you are eligible) and your retirement savings can grow steadily without interference from debt.
Do You Have Any Other Advice for James?
Something you think I missed? Drop a line in the comments below.
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