Student Loans vs. Saving

This is the second post in a series of six blog entries focused on topics that might be of interest to the Millennial generation. If you would like to see our attempt at making these subject matters entertaining, visit our YouTube page to see a video version of this article.

 

You’ve recently graduated from college and you have a load of student debt. It can be overwhelming. You think it will take forever to pay it off. To make matters worse, you know you are supposed to be saving for retirement but you feel like you can’t because you need to pay off your student loans first.

To make the best financial decision it is important to remove the psychological barriers that often accompany the ‘saving versus paying down debt’ trade-off. The millennial generation is particularly opposed to debt – more so than older generations, so they tend to pay their student loans off before they start saving. Unfortunately, this could be the wrong choice.

The long run average of large company stocks is 11.3% (1950-2013). If your student loans are at an 8% interest rate, you would be better off investing money over and above your minimum loan payment if you have the risk tolerance for investing the money in equities.

Maybe an 11.3% return sounds unrealistic. It’s common for this historical return to seem disconnected from the present. A common psychological condition causes us to take recent past experiences and extrapolate them into the future, creating a false sense of predictive ability on what the future holds. If the good times are rolling, they will always roll. If we are in crisis, we will be in crisis for the foreseeable future. But the truth is that things change. Our economy is cyclical in nature and that’s why we use long-term historical observations to make long-term decisions.

Even with the worst recession since the Great Depression the average return of large company stocks in the 10-year period from 2004 -2013 was 7.4%. And while that’s not huge, you may be willing to take the chance that we won’t soon see a repeat of the worst stock market period in history. Those loans will get paid off eventually and you’ll have more money in retirement simply by saving more and saving earlier.

Don’t forget about your employer match on your 401k. If you have a 401k match, by all means take it! Even if your student loan interest rate is 12%, you’d be better off (after paying the minimum) putting enough money into your 401k to get the free money. That’s a 100% return, guaranteed.

Harli Palme, CFA, CFP®
Partner

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