Thoughts in Charts: Retirement Ready vs Debt Free

This week’s chart illustrates why I encourage people to consider their retirement savings with the same weight as they consider aggressively paying off debt. The idea of living debt free is so catchy and liberating, but what if it’s costing you your financial freedom later in life?

The Forbes Advisor article, “Should You Pay Off Debt or Save For Retirement?” walks through a decision tree for how to prioritize your savings and debt decisions. It’s a great read, but I’d add one behavioral hack to your decision-making process: The Rule of 72.

One of the issues with deciding between paying down debt or saving for retirement is that you can’t predict the returns of the market. It’s pretty easy to calculate the interest that you owe over the life of the loan, but it’s hard to know what your investment will be worth later in life.

The Rule of 72 gives you a shortcut to help estimate how long it would take your investment today to double, given an assumed interest rate.

If you assume a rate of 5% then 72/5 = 14.4 years to double your money. If you assume 8%, then it would take 9 years to double your money.

Since you probably know how many years you have until retirement, the Rule of 72 can help you design an estimated range of probable values for your investment.

In the above example, if you have 48 years until retirement, a $10,000 investment given a fairly reasonable rate of return should have a value of between $40,000 to $160,000. In an extreme case, it could be as much as $2,560,000.

This type of table frames-up the impact of saving and gives you more information as you make your decision. If the loan interest you save by prepaying is far less than the gains suggested by the Rule of 72 table, it’s time to consider if “debt free” is really worth the cost.

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