One of the things I most often hear from people about personal finance is how much they wish they had learned about it when they were younger. In talking to younger people, I do see a lot of awareness about the importance of financial wellness. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of myths and generalities circulating around about how young people should manage their money. Here are three of the most common:
1) Focus on paying off your student loans early.
I get it. No one likes paying student loans and we’d all like the day to come as soon as possible when we no longer have to make those payments. However, student loans typically have relatively low interest rates (at least for undergrads) so any extra cash you have would probably be better off used to pay down higher interest debt like credit cards or invested for a greater expected rate of return (especially if you can get matching contributions in your employer’s retirement plan).
A good rule of thumb I suggest is to pay down debts early if the interest rate is above 6% since you may not earn as much by investing extra savings instead. If the interest rate is below 4%, you should probably just make the minimum payments since you can likely earn more by investing the extra money. If it’s between 4-6%, you can go either way depending on how comfortable you feel with debt vs. your risk tolerance with investing. (The more conservative you are, the more it makes sense to pay down debt vs investing.)
So, what should you do with your student loans? First, see if you can refinance your debt to get a lower interest rate. (Just be careful about switching from government to private loans since you lose a number of benefits.) If the rate is low, you might even want to switch to an extended payment plan since the lower payments will free up savings you can use for other goals like saving for emergencies, buying a home or retirement. If the rate is high, try to pay it down early after building up an emergency fund, getting the full match in your retirement plan and paying down any higher interest debt.
2) Roth accounts are better for young people.
Unlike traditional pre-tax accounts, Roth accounts don’t give you any tax break now, but the earnings can grow to be withdrawn tax-free after age 59 ½ as long as you have the account at least 5 years. The argument here is that young people have more time to grow those tax-free earnings. They’re also early in their careers so they may be in a higher tax bracket in retirement.
However, if you’re trying to save for emergencies or a home purchase and are just contributing to your retirement plan to get the match, you may want to make pre-tax contributions and use the tax savings for your other goals. Even if you’re focused on retirement rather than more immediate goals, a traditional pre-tax account may still be better for you if you’ll end up paying a lower tax rate in retirement.
If you plan to go back to school full-time, you can also convert those pre-tax dollars to Roth at a time when you’re in a fairly low tax bracket. If you’re not sure which makes sense, you can split your contributions between pre-tax and Roth or contribute to your employer’s plan pre-tax (it may even be the only option) and to a Roth IRA (which has additional benefits).
3) Invest aggressively while you’re young.
There is some truth in this. The longer your time frame, the more aggressively you can generally afford to invest your money and young people tend to have long time horizons before retirement. There are a couple of important caveats here though.
The first is that not all of your money has a long time frame. For example, financial planners generally recommend that one of your first goals should be to accumulate enough emergency savings to cover at least 3-6 months of necessary expenses. This is especially important for young people who are more likely to change jobs and haven’t had as much time to accumulate other assets like home equity or retirement plan balances to tap into.
You may have other short term goals to save for like a vacation or home purchase. Any money you may need in the next 5 years should be someplace safe like a savings account or money market fund since you won’t have much time to recover from a downturn in the market.
Speaking of downturns, the second problem is that this advice ignores risk tolerance. Many young people are new to investing and may panic and sell at the next significant market decline. If this sounds like you, consider a more conservative portfolio (but not TOO conservative). If you have access to target date funds, you may want to pick a fund with a year earlier than your planned retirement date. You can also see if your retirement plan or investment firm offers free online tools to help you design a portfolio customized to your personal risk tolerance.
Of course, there are plenty of young people who should pay down their student loans early, contribute to Roth accounts and invest aggressively. The key is to figure out what makes the most sense for your situation. If you want help, see if your employer offers free access to unbiased financial planners as an employee benefit or consider hiring an advisor who charges a flat fee for advice rather than someone who sells investments for a commission or requires a high asset minimum that you may not be able to meet. In any case, you don’t want to make the wrong choice now, and regret it when you’re older.
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