Is it best to get out of debt before you start investing? This is a common question that comes up quite often. The issue is actually fairly complex considering the many different types of debt and investment options available. In general, the answer is you should pay off your debt before investing. Here are some general guidelines.
The cost of the debt you have is almost certainly higher than the risk-free rate of return (the return on one-month Treasury bills). Other investments like stocks have higher expected (but not guaranteed) returns. The higher expected return is called a risk premium. And it is called a risk premium for a reason; you are taking risk. How large a premium is a reflection of the degree of risk.
Thus, the market has historically priced stocks to provide that size and value risk premium.
Let’s take an example. Say treasury bills are at 4% and we expect stocks to return 10%. That is a risk premium of 6%. But if your debt costs you 8% then your risk premium is only 2%. You are taking risk that the market prices at 6% and earning just 2%. That does not make sense to me.
Now it is a bit more complex since you should look at after tax returns. So you should adjust the cost of the debt to reflect the true after tax cost (assuming the interest is tax deductible) and adjust the equity return to reflect the lower capital gains rates (assuming it is in taxable account).
Does this advice take into account the initial tax savings from investing in retirement accounts such as IRAs, 401k, etc.?
The answer is to do the math. You look at the after-tax return on your fixed income investments and compare it to the after-tax cost of the debt.
Typically what you will find is that the highest after tax return you can get (on risk-adjusted basis) is by paying off debt, especially credit card debt, auto related debt, etc.
Another important issue relates to mortgage debt. Many people make the mistake of not thinking of the mortgage on their home as debt when it comes to their asset allocation. Mortgage debt should be treated the same way as any other debt in terms of analyzing the costs versus the expected return on any investment.
If your financial plan requires you to earn a high rate of return then you may need to carry a home mortgage and take the risk of investing in stocks (instead of paying down the mortgage). But you then should be sure you also have the ability and willingness to take that risk as well. My book, The Only Guide to a Winning Investment Strategy You’ll Ever Need, has a chapter on how to build a portfolio, specifically addressing the issues of ability, willingness and need to take risk. I provide specific tables that are easy to use to help you figure out the right asset allocation for you.
On the other hand, if you have a fixed rate mortgage with a long maturity still left, and the math works out to be a small advantage to paying off the debt versus investing in short to intermediate fixed income investments then you might want to hold the mortgage because it does provide inflation protection. And that is worth something.
I would add one last point. While stocks have historically earned about 10% a year, providing that large risk premium, most financial economists believe that going forward the return to stocks will be somewhat lower, more in the range of 7-8 percent per annum.
Disclaimer: Mr. Swedroe’s opinions and comments expressed are his own, and may not accurately reflect those of the firm, nor Moolanomy and its owner.