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Should I Pay Off My Student Loans Early or Contribute to My Workplace 401(k)?

For young adults with college debt, deciding whether to pay off student loans early or contribute to a 401(k) can be tough. It’s a financial tug-of-war between digging out from debt today and saving for the future, both of which are very important goals. Unfortunately, this dilemma affects many people in the workplace today. According to a student debt report by The Institute for College Access and Success, nearly 70% of college grads in the class of 2014 had student debt, and their average debt was nearly $29,000. This equates to a monthly payment of $294, assuming a 4% interest rate and a standard 10-year repayment term.

Let’s assume you have a $300 monthly student loan payment. You have to pay it each month–that’s non-negotiable. But should you pay more toward your loans each month to pay them off faster? Or should you contribute any extra funds to your 401(k)? The answer boils down to how your money can best be put to work for you.

The first question you should ask is whether your employer offers a 401(k) match. If yes, you shouldn’t leave this free money on the table. For example, let’s assume your employer matches $1 for every dollar you save in your 401(k), up to 6% of your pay. If you make $50,000 a year, 6% of your pay is $3,000. So at a minimum, you should consider contributing $3,000 per year to your 401(k)–or $250 per month–to get the full $3,000 match. That’s potentially a 100% return on your investment.

Even if your employer doesn’t offer a 401(k) match, it can still be a good idea to contribute to your 401(k). When you make extra payments on a specific debt, you are essentially earning a return equal to the interest rate on that debt. If the interest rate on your student loans is relatively low, the potential long-term returns earned on your 401(k) may outweigh the benefits of shaving a year or two off your student loans. In addition, young adults have time on their side when saving for retirement, so the long-term growth potential of even small investment amounts can make contributing to your 401(k) a smart financial move.

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