If I have student loans to pay off, should I also save for retirement? Here’s what experts say

If you went to college, there’s a good chance you still have student loans to tackle. It takes Americans with student debt an average of 21 years to completely pay off their education, and the average student loan payment is $393 a month.

With that kind of weight on your wallet, you might wonder whether you should save for retirement while paying back loans. According to financial experts, the answer is typically ‘yes.’

“If you are able to allocate even a small amount of funds towards retirement, you should still do so even while you are paying down student loans,” Jordan Sowhangar, a Pennsylvania-based certified financial planner, tells CNBC Make It.

Since everyone’s financial circumstances differ, the paths people take toward eliminating student debt while also saving for retirement are highly personal. But to help you take a smart approach, here’s what financial experts say about how to tackle both simultaneously.

How much should you be saving for retirement if you have student loans?
The truth is, the answer to this question is going to be different for everyone. Still, experts say there are a few key things to consider when deciding how to allocate your money.

First, take a close look at how much you’re making and how much your student loan payments cost each month. Then total up how much your monthly expenses are, including student loans, and subtract that from your total income. The difference will give you an idea of how much is leftover to be put toward retirement.

“The minimum payment should always be met on the current student loan debt to avoid penalties that could negatively impact your credit score,” Sowhangar says. “After that has been satisfied, whatever percentage you are able to contribute towards an employer-sponsored retirement plan to take advantage of the maximum employer match should then be saved.”

You should also take into account how much interest you’re paying on your student loans. If sky-high rates are making it difficult to keep up, you may want to consider putting more toward your debt even before contributing up to your company match in savings.

“Are there higher interest rate student loans over 6% to 7%? If so, it may be wise to put a greater percentage of the additional income toward those loans first,” Sowhanger says.

Contribute what you can now
Even if you can’t meet the company match on your 401(k), contributing something — even a small monthly investment toward your retirement — is better than nothing.

In the U.S., an estimated 56% of Americans between 18 and 29 put off saving for retirement because they still owe on their student loans. As a result, they’re missing out on compound interest that could help their savings grow over time.

With compound interest, not only do you earn returns on your initial investment, but you also earn returns on those returns at the end of each compounding period. If you start investing early and let your money sit, it will grow exponentially.

“No matter what your debt situation looks like, you need to always put something away for retirement. The power of compounding is a much-needed tailwind to any investment portfolio,” says Malik S. Lee, certified financial planner and founder of Felton and Peel Wealth Management.

An 18-year-old who invests $100 per month and earns a 6% rate of return would accumulate $307,000 by 65. But if they wait until 40 to start saving, they’d only have $70,000 by 65, according data from Charles Schwab.

Even if you can only contribute a small portion of your paycheck to retirement, it’s better to start early and invest small amounts than to put away nothing at all. “Yes, it’s going to be tough. But if you can make enough sacrifices early on, then you won’t need to make these sacrifices later on in life,” says Ryan Marshall, a New Jersey-based certified financial planner.

How can you save for later in life more efficiently?
Finding ways to make your money go further can help ease the burden of trying to save for retirement while also paying off student debt. Tax-efficient savings tools are one way to help grow your money faster.

A 401(k) — if offered by your employer — is funded by pre-tax dollars that are funneled straight from your paycheck. In many cases, your employer will match whatever contribution you make up to a certain percent.

The average employer 401(k) employer match for 2019 is 4.7%, according to Fidelity. That means if your employer contributes up to 4.7%, you’d also need to put 4.7% toward your 401(k) in order to receive the full match. This type of match is sometimes referred to as “free money,” but you can think of it as part of the total amount your employer owes you.

“A buy-one-get-one-free deal is how I think of it,” Monica Sipes, a certified financial planner and senior wealth advisor at Exencial Wealth Advisors, tells CNBC Make It. “The match is something that’s considered in your overall compensation, so by not taking advantage of it you’re not getting a full freight of what your employer was expecting to pay you.”

If you don’t have an employer-sponsored retirement plan, you can also consider signing up for a Roth IRA, which is another type of tax-advantaged savings plan that can help you grow your retirement fund.

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