Savings vs. debt: What’s your priority?

by Karen on August 17, 2008

Most personal finance gurus agree on a wide range of money topics, but there’s one that causes continual controversy: When creating a budget, should debt or savings take precedence?

When we set our first zero-based budget using mint personal finance software,  we struggled with this one. Right now we’re focusing on paying down credit card debt. As of November we’ll be completely credit card debt free, and that money will then go toward a sizable chunk of student loan debt.

I’ve read “The Total Money Makeover” by Dave Ramsey, and I think his plan makes sense for people who are settled into a home where they plan to stay long-term. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for my husband and me.

We decided that focusing on debt isn’t the best option for us. Instead, we figured out how much money we have left over at the end of the month once all of our bills and living expenses are paid. It’s about $500. So we’re devoting $250 to our savings and $250 to student loan debt.

I know, this might not make sense to some of you. However, all but 1/3 of our student loan debt is low-interest federal loans. The interest rate for those is 4%, which isn’t much higher than the 3% interest rate on our ING savings account.

I briefly considered putting the high-interest private student loan debt before savings. If we devoted all $500 of our extra money at the end of the month to those loans, we could pay them off in 3 years. After that, if we continued to devote $500 a month to paying off the federal loans, it would take another 8 years to pay those off. Of course, I’m hoping that as our income increases, we’ll have more money to put toward debt so we’ll be able to pay them off faster.

The problem is, we need to save to pay my husband’s tuition for the next two years so we can avoid even more student loan debt. With so much to save, we really can’t afford to leave our savings alone while we get out of debt.

So for now we’re splitting the difference. Aside from the minimum payment for the federal loans, all $250 of our debt money is going toward the private student loans until they’re paid off. When those are paid off, we’ll start paying off the federal loans.

It’s not completely equal, though. At the end of the month, unexpected income or surplus money that we didn’t spend goes toward credit card debt for now. Once we’re out of credit card debt, our savings accounts will take precedence and extra income will go there.

The $250 budgeted toward student loan debt is fixed until further notice. If our income permanently increases through a raise or other source, we’ll reconfigure this plan. Once my husband is finished with school, bringing in a full salary, and we’re settled in a city where we plan to stay long-term, we’ll rent a cheap apartment and start attacking our debt. We don’t plan to start saving a down payment for a house until those student loans are out of our lives.

The point is, no solution is one size fits all. This is what works for us right now, but we’ll adapt our debt to savings ratio as our lives and plans change.

What are your thoughts? Does debt or savings come first in your budget?

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Building up savings while getting out of debt | Sense to Save
August 19, 2008 at 4:39 pm

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