Retirement, Savings or Debt? How to Prioritize Your Financial Goals

Retirement, Savings or Debt? How to Prioritize Your Financial Goals

When it comes to our personal finances, we all start out with the best of intentions.

We're going to stick to our budget. We're going to have the biggest emergency fund anyone ever saw, and we're going to sign up for every last insurance policy we need. We're also going to start saving for retirement from day one, and live happily ever after in Barbados. Enter real life. That's where you're faced with tricky questions like, should you put your raise toward your emergency fund, your credit card debt or your IRA?

At LearnVest, we tend to call these "this or that" questions: As in, should I fund this financial goal first or that one? Sometimes it can seem like questions that involve retirement are trickiest of all. Why? Because it's easy for retirement to seem like the least pressing concern, but it is also the one with the highest price tag—and the one you'll be rewarded for most if you start saving early.

RELATED: Checklist: I Want to Set Financial Goals for Myself

And most of us severely underestimate how much we need to save. That's why today—in honor of the launch of our free, 10-day Retiring in Style Bootcamp—we'll show you how to prioritize retirement against your other financial priorities. Once you're clear on that, we'll set you straight on just how you can make all the right moves and retire to [your island of choice], Mai Tai in hand.

Sign up for our free Retirement Bootcamp here!

Setting Your Financial Priorities

Before we dive into retirement vs. other financial priorities, let's set a few ground rules. First, the best way to set up your budget is what we call the 50/20/30 Rule. (You can read all about it here.) In short, the 50/20/30 Rule states:

  • No more than 50% of your take-home pay should be spent on Essential Expenses, which are strictly defined as your housing, transportation, utilities and groceries. Nothing else.
  • At least 20% of your take-home pay should go to Financial Priorities, which are defined as retirement contributions, savings contributions and debt payments. And we're not counting any retirement contributions you make through your employer, such as a 401(k) or a 403(b).
  • Lastly, no more than 30% of your take-home pay should go toward your Lifestyle Choices, which encompasses everything else: shopping, the babysitter, entertainment, personal care, the gym, cable, gifts, your cell phone, dog food, and more.

(Want to see how your own finances stack up against the 50/20/30 Rule? Run them through our Smart Budget.) Today, we're going to focus in on that 20% slice: How exactly do you prioritize retirement over savings and debt? Doesn't it all kind of feel equally important? Well, actually, we have a few guidelines for you.

How to Rank Your Financial Priorities

1. Retirement comes first.

We're not putting retirement at the top of your priority list just because we're launching Retiring in Style Bootcamp today. Retirement is the number one financial priority for pretty much everyone for three reasons:

  1. Inflation causes the value of every dollar to shrink year after year, so by the time you retire, you'll need much more money every year to live than you currently live on now.
  2. We're living longer than ever and health care costs are rising, so we need to save up to take care of ourselves for a longer period in retirement than previous generations did.
  3. Today's retirees can rely on Social Security or pensions. But we won't be able to. Pensions are becoming much less common and the future of Social Security is up in the air. It's up to us to save what we can for retirement.

2. Emergency Savings

This is your second priority because if you don't have an emergency fund and an emergency pops up, you'll either

  • Rack up credit card debt
  • Have to borrow from your retirement savings in order to cover the emergency

What, exactly, is an emergency fund for? If you don't know, we'll walk you through how (and where) to build one, and the only reasons you should be spending yours. Having these savings in place will protect not only you but also your top two other financial priorities.


Get started with a free financial assessment.

3. Debt

Debt may be third on this list, but that doesn't mean it's not a high priority. Yes, it comes after retirement and emergency savings, but it also comes before your Lifestyle Choices spending. That means that every month, you make your debt payments before you, say, buy a new phone or that Thanksgiving plane ticket home or the new work shoes you need. Why? Because debt is a huge burden, and because--in the case of credit card debt--your debt can grow. For that reason, when you tackle your debt, you should:

  • First work on paying down credit card debt over other kinds of debt.
  • Among your credit card balances, pay minimums toward everything but your highest-interest rate debt. Put as much as you can toward that.
  • Once that is paid off, prioritize your next-highest interest-rate debt. Non-credit card debt, such as from student loans, is lower in priority than credit card debt because the amount does not increase the longer you hold it.

(Learn exactly how to pay off debt here.)

Are You an Exception to the Rule?

While these are helpful guidelines that apply to most people, there are specific situations which mean you should allocate money a bit differently toward your Financial Priorities. Here are five scenarios in which real life bumps up against the rule, and the best advice might actually be something more tailored to the person's specific situation:

  1. A recent college grad who is making $30,000 a year and has $50,000 in school loans but no savings
  2. A 55-year-old who has a three-month emergency fund but is behind on retirement savings and has $10,000 in credit card debt
  3. A 35-year-old single mother with a two-year-old and no emergency savings
  4. A 45-year-old single woman who has six months of emergency savings, no debt and is on track for retirement, but who has just been diagnosed with a serious illness that could put her out of work for several months
  5. A 30-year-old who was just out of work for eight months and not only depleted her emergency savings but also got into $10,000 worth of credit card debt

Unfortunately, because these situations are unique, it's hard for us to give a hard and fast rule about how each person should prioritize their Financial Priorities. For that reason, if you fit one of these profiles, you might want to see a Certified Financial Planner® to get appropriate advice for you. (We do sell such plans through LearnVest Planning Services.)

Now, Back to Your Best Intentions ...

Congrats! Now you know how important retirement is relative to your other Financial Priorities--which not a lot of people know. But, do you know how much your retirement will cost, how much you should be putting away every month or which retirement accounts you need? If not, then sign up for our free Retiring in Style Bootcamp, which will guide you to these answers, quiz you on your risk tolerance, determine your replacement ratio and give you a road map for managing your retirement year after year. We promise: Your 65-year-old self will thank you for it--just before she hops on that plane.


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