Not everyone is able to retire completely debt-free. And that’s OK because, depending on your situation, it may not even be in your best financial interest to completely pay off your debt.
However, it is important to have a plan to help you manage debt in retirement. Here are a few tips to help you get organized.
MAKE A LIST
The first step to managing debt is to have a clear understanding of how much you owe. Start by listing out all of your debts including credit card balances, medical bills, personal, auto or home loans, and mortgages. Write out the total balance owed and monthly minimum payment for each debt, as well as the interest rate. You’ll also want to include each creditor’s name and contact details (more on why below).
NEGOTIATE WHERE YOU CAN
Once you have a sense of how much debt you have, the next step is to see if you can lower any of the interest rates. While some of your debts may have a fixed rate that you won’t be able to negotiate, you might be able to lower the annual percentage rate (APR) on your credit cards by calling your lender. If not, see if you can transfer your credit card balance to a different card with a lower APR or consolidate some of your loans. Just remember that there may be fees associated with balance transfers or refinancing, so be sure you understand the terms of the agreement.
While you should always make the minimum monthly payments on all of your debts, some debts should be paid down more aggressively than others, so you’ll want to figure out which ones make the most sense to pay down first. A good rule is to focus on your high-interest debt first, like credit card debt. That’s because the higher the interest rate, the more money you’re spending on interest each month.
Start with your debt with the highest-interest rate first, while making the minimum payments on your other debt. Once you pay off your highest-interest debt, move to the next highest as you make your way down the list. (This is known as the debt avalanche strategy).
If you’re not sure which debts to pay down first, a financial advisor can help you prioritize.
DETERMINE WHICH DEBTS TO KEEP
Being completely debt-free can give you a sense of pride and financial independence. But there are some instances when it could make more sense to make the minimum monthly payment, rather than pay the debt off in full.
If you can earn more than the interest you’re paying. If you have a 0.9 percent interest rate on a car loan but could earn a 3 percent return on your money in a low-risk investment, you’d come out ahead by investing the money you’d otherwise use to pay the entire debt now.
If the debt reduces your tax liability. If you can deduct some of the interest you pay on a debt when you file your annual income taxes, you may be better off keeping the debt for the tax break — especially if you have a low interest rate. An example of this might be a mortgage, which is one of the reasons it’s considered to be good debt.
If the debt wipes out your emergency fund. If you manage to pay off all your debt but then have very little cash in the bank, this could end up backfiring if you ever need that money.
Let’s say you were to spend $50,000 to pay off a low-interest home loan and left yourself with very little accessible cash. If an unexpected expense were to crop up, you could be forced to take a high-interest loan. In this case, it would have made more sense to keep your money on hand while continuing to pay down a lower-interest interest loan over time.