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Should you invest or pay off student loans?

Debt is not all bad. Debt can help you pay for a college education or buy your first house.

But too much debt, especially when you’re just starting your career or trying to make future plans, can feel overwhelming. Nearly 50% of people under age 30 with a bachelor’s degree or more have student loan debt.1 Add to that an average of $27,250 in non-mortgage debt for people age 25–40.2

Graphic stating that nearly 50% of people under age 30 have student debt.

How do you balance paying off your student loan with other big goals such as buying a home or retirement? Start with these six tips.

1. Skip the “debt regret” trap.

Turns out, you’re not the only person who may have some second thoughts about debt. Three out of four Americans regret at least one money choice.3 “Everyone you know has likely made financial decisions in their past that they can learn from,” says Heather Winston, assistant director of financial advice and planning at Principal®.

One thing to note: Student loans didn’t even make the Top 3 regrets, but not saving enough for retirement early on topped everyone’s list.

2. Learn what you can about your debt.

Dig into the details of your debt, including payment length, interest rate, and balance.

“The key to long-term success is to use debt skillfully, prioritize it along with saving and spending, and recognize that the debt you have will likely have some impact on the attainment of your goals,” Winston says.

3. Analyze your debt-to-income ratio and your budget.

Debt-to-income ratio is simply your total monthly debt divided by your gross monthly income. In general, debt shouldn’t exceed 28% of that ratio. Use our debt-to-income ratio calculator below.

In addition to understanding your debt-to-income ratio, set up a budget, even if it’s a simple list of expenses and income. Use our budget worksheet (PDF) to get started.

Having a lower debt-to-income ratio isn’t just about being able to pay your bills every month. A higher debt-to-income ratio negatively impacts your credit score, which in turn negatively impacts your ability to accomplish those long-term financial goals.

If your ratio or your budget are out of whack, there are things you can do in the short term. Maybe that’s a temporary job, a roommate, or delaying other goals by a year or two.

4. Be flexible and forward focused.

Debt is like any other goal: Small steps build up to big progress. That may mean coming up with a plan to pay off your student debt (or other debt) faster, and trimming expenses so you can start making small steps toward savings goals.

Some, like Winston, take one path. “I lived off ramen noodle soup and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches for nearly a year so I could pay off what I owed coming out of college,” Winston says. “I was determined to use every penny that wasn’t for rent and utilities to pay down my debt fast.”

You can choose what works for you—ramen or not. For example, match what you spend going out to dinner with an extra payment toward your student loan. Or size down your apartment, even for a year.

5. It doesn’t have to be an invest or pay off student loans. It can be both.

In the back of your mind, you might think, I can’t possibly save for a down payment/vacation/wedding until all my debt is gone. But unless your debt is very small, it may take several years to get rid of it. And those years are vital for other savings goals, such as retirement.

The earlier you start saving for retirement, even if you start small, the better off you may be in your post-work years. “Most of us have competing timeframes and goals,” Winston says. “It’s unrealistic to think you can stop saving for retirement just to make your debt go away faster.”

One easy win when you’re balancing loan payments and savings goals is to put enough money into an employer-sponsored retirement plan to get the maximum match if available.

6. Know your worth is more than your debt.

There will always be people who are doing more or earning more. When it comes to debt and financial goals, you can only control your choices.

“When I was underwater because of my student loans, that didn’t make me less likeable, loveable, or worthy of a different circumstance,” Winston says. “Recognize that your experience in this life is not like that of the people around you. It’s yours and what you make of it is all under your control.”

Next steps

1 https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/13/facts-about-student-loans/

2 https://www.experian.com/blogs/insights/2020/10/state-credit-2020/, https://www.cnbc.com/select/average-debt-for-20-year-olds/

3 https://www.bankrate.com/banking/savings/financial-security-may-2019/

The subject matter in this communication is educational only and provided with the understanding that Principal® is not rendering legal, accounting, investment advice or tax advice. You should consult with appropriate counsel or other professionals on all matters pertaining to legal, tax, investment or accounting obligations and requirements.

Insurance products and plan administrative services provided through Principal Life Insurance Co., a member of the Principal Financial Group®, Des Moines, IA 50392. Investment advisory products offered through Principal Advised Services, LLC. Des Moines, IA 50392.