10 practical ways to pay off debt before retirement

Pay off debt before retirement is a top priority for many of you who are planning to retire in the near future. In my article Retirement Checklist, I discussed a 12-step roadmap to planning a successful and carefree retirement. One of the most important steps was paying off your debt. According to the Federal Reserve, US households owe $4 trillion in non-housing loans and $10 trillion in mortgage debt. In today’s world, it is easy and effortless to get credit. Loan and credit card offers are lurking on every corner.

Why is it essential to pay off debt before retirement?

Being debt-free is a significant milestone in becoming financially independent. Retirement opens a new chapter in new life. You can no longer rely on your working wage. Your retirement income will come from a combination of steady income sources such as social security, pension, retirement savings, and possibly annuities.  Your income will drop, your healthcare cost will rise, and your debt payments will remain the same. Having a large amount of debt during retirement will reduce your disposable income and strain your financial strength.

For those of you who are committed to paying debt before retirement, I have created a multi-step guide that can help you navigate through the challenges of becoming debt-free

1. Set your goals

Setting your financial and retirement goals is an essential pathway in your life journey. Pay off debt before retirement starts with establishing up your goals. Having goals give you structure and will prepare you for the future. If you do not know where you are going, you can end up anywhere. Following your objectives will provide you with essential life milestones. Achieving your goals will give you a sense of accomplishment and boost your confidence.

2. Take control of your spending habits

If you are approaching retirement with considerable debt, you need to rein in spending habits. You can not be a big spender. Therefore, as long as you spend more than you earn, you will need to cut back. I know it is a painful task. It is not easy to make changes to your lifestyle. Still, think of it as a small and responsible sacrifice today so you can live a better tomorrow.

3. Create a budget

If you find yourself spending more than you make, you will need to set up a budget. Numerous websites and mobile apps can help you track your income and expenses by groups, categories, and periods. Regular budgeting can help you steer away from outsized spending and frivolous purchases.

4. Build an emergency fund

An emergency fund is the amount of cash you need to cover 6 to 12 months of essential expenses. Financially successful people maintain an emergency fund to cover high, unexpected costs. Your rainy-day stash can serve as a buffer if you lose your job or lose your ability to earn income. By maintaining an emergency fund, you could avoid taking debt and cover temporary gaps in your budget. Suppose you don’t have an emergency fund. Start with setting up a certain percentage of your wage that will automatically go to your savings account. Don’t get discouraged if it takes a long time to build your rainy-day fund.  It is okay. Look forward and keep saving.

5. Track your loans

Did you notice that the first four steps of becoming debt-free did not involve debt at all? I hope you will agree that building long-lasting financial habits is the key to financial independence.

So, if you have reviewed my first four recommendations, it is time to look at your debt.

Make a list of all your loans – credit cards, auto, mortgage, student, home equity, personal loans. Sort them by amount and interest rate. Pay attention to due dates and monthly interest charges. Do not miss payments. Late or missed payments can trigger enormous late fees and penalty charges. Stay on top of your loans. Track them daily and monthly.

6. Pay off higher interest loans first

I strongly recommend that you pay off your highest interest loans first. Credit cards tend to have the highest interest rates and the most punishing late fees. If you have credit card debt, there is a high chance that you need to tackle it first.  Remember, there are always exceptions to the rules, and every one case is different.

Another popular theory suggests that you pay off your smaller loans first and repay the bigger loans next. The reasoning behind this recommendation is that paying off even smaller loans awards you with the feeling of accomplishment. You can also focus on the big picture once you eliminate the smaller loans.

Mathematically, paying off your highest interest loans makes more sense. Emotionally, paying off the smaller debt first could be more effective. In the end, you can find a happy medium. Use the approach that works best for you and your specific situation.

7. Pay off or refinance your mortgage

I recommend that you pay off your mortgage by the time you retire. Owning your house without the burden of debt is the ultimate American dream and the secret to a happy retirement. In today’s world, there is nothing more liberating than owning your home. Your home is your fortress. It’s the place where you can be yourself. You can host your family and friends and enjoy your favorite hobby.

Now, if you are still making mortgage payments, you may want to look into refinancing options. With record-low interest rates, today offers an excellent opportunity to lower your monthly mortgage bill. It’s certainly will be easier to refinance your mortgage while still working and having regular income and paystubs. I highly recommend that you shop around for the best offer. Banks and mortgage brokers will offer you a wide range of interest rates, closing costs, and refinancing rules. Generally, stay away from bids with high closing costs. Evaluate your savings for each offer and choose the option that best suits your need.

8. Downsize and relocate

Another popular way to control your cost and pay off debt before retirement is downsizing and relocating. Sometimes you can do them both at the same time. Owning a big house requires high maintenance, bills, and possibly higher property taxes. Moving to a smaller home in a more affordable location can save you a lot of money in the long run. The USA offers a wide range of affordable locations in smaller states and communities. Choose a location that fits your budget, health insurance needs, and lifestyle.

9. Work longer

if you are approaching retirement age and holding debt, you may want to consider working longer. Working after retirement is no longer a stigma. Many retirees choose to work part-time, remain active, and earn an extra income.  The additional money can help your pay off your remaining loans. You can use the extra cash to maintain your emergency fund or support your current lifestyle.

10. Do not touch your retirement savings

Your retirement savings are sacred. They are your ticket to financial freedom. It can be tempting to pay your debt before retirement by tapping into your 401k or IRA. However, this strategy rarely ends very well.  Do not withdraw your 401k or IRA savings unless you are in dire need. Hold on to your retirement savings until you exhaust your other options.  One, when drawing from your retirement plan, you will need to pay taxes. Furthermore, you may have to pay a penalty charge if you are younger than 59 ½. Second, paying off debt without controlling your expense will only have a short-term impact. You will be back where you started in just a couple of months or years. And lastly, tapping your retirement savings now will reduce your future income. How confident are you that you can replace your lost revenue in the future?

About Stoyan Panayotov

I am a fee-only financial advisor and the founder of Babylon Wealth Management. As fiduciary advisors, we provide bespoke wealth management and personalized financial planning to busy families in the Bay Area and nationally. Many of our clients are tech workers, physicians, business owners, professionals preparing for retirement and young families looking to build financial independence.

I started Babylon Wealth Management to help young families and successful professionals build, grow and preserve their wealth. Being a fee-only financial advisor, I never earn sales commissions or sell investment products. Furthermore, I am committed to acting in my clients’ best interest by providing trusted advice and bespoke wealth management solutions. I enjoy helping clients develop robust and personalized long-term financial plans to achieve their personal and financial goals.

After completing a bachelor’s degree in Accounting at Varna University of Economics in Bulgaria, at the age of 23, I moved to New York City to pursue a Master of Business Administration at Pace University. I was fortunate enough to have a full merit-based scholarship and finished graduate school with no student loans. Upon completing grad school, I joined the ranks on Wall Street for nearly two years. I specialized in risk management and option strategies for equity and fixed income products for Deutsche Bank and Wells Fargo. In 2006 I obtained a highly recognized CFA designation.

Living in New York without family support was a life-changing experience for me. II arrived at JFK Airport on August 24, 2002. I stayed in a hostel for two weeks and later moved in with three of my fellow Bulgarian students into a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. There was a time in life when all I owned was $200, just enough to pay for the next month’s rent. Many times, I contemplated returning to Bulgaria, but somehow, I always pushed through life’s adversities. I’ve learned to appreciate each moment, big or small, that life presents. These challenges have helped me develop strength and flexibility, which supports my practice as a financial advisor.

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