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Dave Ramsey says: Pay down student loans before investing

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 25 2014 7:00 a.m. MST

Students walk across campus at the University of Vermont on Monday, April 30, 2012 in Burlington, Vt. U.S.

Toby Talbot, Associated Press

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Dear Dave,

I went to medical school, and now I have $70,000 in debt. I just started a three-year residency making about $50,000 a year, while my wife makes $40,000. The student loans represent our only debt. Do you think we should be paying this off or investing in a Roth IRA?

— David

Dear David,

If I were in your shoes, I’d work on paying down the student loans. That means you may never be in a Roth, but there are other things you can invest in to grow wealth.

I realize this may not seem right mathematically, but I don’t always make financial decisions based exclusively on math. Many times I do things based on changing money behaviors — things such as paying off debts from smallest to largest because it actually works. Personal finance is 80 percent behavior and only 20 percent head knowledge. So sometimes you have to go with what actually works best overall, in spite of what the technical math shows.

In your case, I think it’s going to be very valuable to have no student loans by the time you complete your residency. With three years to go and living on an income of $90,000 a year, you can do it. Then, when you come through the other side as a full-fledged doctor, you’ll have the great income and be sitting there debt-free. Not a bad place to be, right?

I understand the Roth seems like a pretty good idea right now, but my advice is to stick with becoming debt-free as quickly as possible. Once that’s done, you and your wife will be able to invest, save and build wealth like crazy!

— Dave

Dear Dave,

My wife started working at a pharmaceutical company that gave her a few thousand dollars’ worth of stock. In the last year, that stock has doubled in value. We’ve considered buying more just to see how it does. What do you think about this?

— Robert

Dear Robert,

I understand why you guys would be excited, but you’re still looking at a very risky proposition. Any stock that doubles its value in just one year is highly volatile. It’s very unusual when things like that happen, and the fact is, it could go down in value just as quickly.

I think you should be completely debt-free, except for your house, and have an emergency fund of three to six months of expenses in place before you start any outside investing. You should also make sure that 15 percent of your income is already going toward retirement.

I don’t mind you dabbling a little bit as long as all the other stuff is taken care of first. But I’d advise you to never put more than 10 percent of your nest egg into single stocks. If you’ve got $50,000 in a 401(k) right now, limit yourself to $5,000 in this area. That way, if the stock tanks and you lose it all, it’s only a small blip on the radar. You’ll still be financially intact and able to retire with dignity.

It would be fantastic if this stock went through the roof and you two made a ton of money. That would be awesome! But make sure you limit the potential for damage by limiting your exposure. Don’t risk the family farm, as they say, to make this play.

— Dave

Follow Dave on Twitter at DaveRamsey and on the web at daveramsey.com.

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