This reader story is from Adam M. Shearer, whose story was prompted by comments from another post.
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After I was challenged in the comments on a recent article, I was drawn into reassessing my personal theories on retirement savings, debt payoff and fun. And I'd like to tell you why I think I have struck the right balance for me.
Currently, I list my priorities as follows:
In pursuit of these priorities, I have made the decision to max out my Roth IRA ($5,500 annually) and my HSA, which I use mostly as a retirement vehicle ($3,250 annually). To that end, I have more than $20,500 in the Roth, which is invested in index funds. I also have $812.50 in the HSA — it's a new account. I don't presently have the option of a 401(k), but when it does become available, I will put in enough to meet my employer's match. I also have more than $3,500 in a brokerage account my grandmother set up when I was young. All the stocks held in it are large, stable companies that pay good dividends. I'm content with not touching that, and, in the future, may decide to start adding to it.
All of my debt is from student loans, totaling about $26,500 as of this writing, approximately $8,800 of which is federally subsidized. My minimum monthly payment is right at $220, and the average interest rate of the unsubsidized loans is 5.45 percent, with the highest being 6.55 percent.
As for savings, I am close to finishing a $3,000 emergency fund, and will move on to a rainy-day fund with a goal of three months' income; I'd eventually like for that to be 12 months.
I thought I was being quite responsible; I feel years ahead of many of my peers, and I'm setting myself up for a life (mostly) free of financial stress. After watching my parents struggle for years, I knew I had to educate myself early and often in order to avoid a similar fate. But those challenging comments I mentioned earlier led me to reconsider if what I am doing is the right choice.
First, commenter Ross Williams contested that, at my age, retirement planning should be far from my first priority. Mr. Williams is of the opinion that I should use the money I earn to enjoy life while I'm young, to travel to new places, experience new things and invest in myself. He added that I may not even make it to retirement or may be too feeble in retirement, so I could be saving all that money for no reason other than to pass it on to my beneficiary.
Then, commenter Mom of Five brought up the question of why I was prioritizing retirement over debt when it seems conventional wisdom is to get out of debt as soon as possible — even if it means sometimes taking extreme measures to do so. She brought up the uncertainty of retirement investments, including the possibilities of stock market fluctuations and rule changes made by the government. She also pointed out that I already live frugally, so a huge retirement fund is probably not a necessity.
Both of these challenges were thought-provoking, and, despite my quick responses to them in the comments, I took a few days to really think about them and reassess my goals and the assumptions I had made in defining them. After that session of introspection, I've come away feeling that the goals I have set are the right goals for me, and I will be changing little.
Why it works for me
Despite putting so much into my retirement planning, I am blessed to earn enough that I can still have fun. I live with two friends, which is fun in and of itself, while also having the added benefit of lowering my cost of living. I go out with my friends often, I buy treats for myself here and there, and I save for bigger things. For example, I recently saved for and went on a volunteer trip to Cape Town, South Africa, working with dirt-poor children both during and after school. I loved it so much that I've already started saving to do it again. I've also learned to appreciate the small things in life. A bat, baseball and glove don't cost much in the grand scheme of things, but I spend many evenings tossing or hitting fly balls with my housemates or playing tennis at a local park.
For me, it's about quality over quantity. And finally, if I do make it to retirement, I don't want to be forced into living on very little or being a leech on society that lives off of the government and/or my children. I'd rather be the early retiree who gave his children a leg up, spoils his grandchildren and travels the world with his wife. If I'm unable to do the latter, I'll be more than content with the first two.
As for debt, the reason it is second on my list of priorities is simply mathematics. At my age, the value of compounding in a retirement fund is much greater than any extra interest I will pay on my loans.
Focusing on the $5,500 I put into my Roth per year, if I retire at 65, that $5,500 will turn into $119,000, at the historical return of 8 percent. Even if I retire at 55, as I plan to do, the balance would be around $55,000. This growth trumps the paltry amount (by comparison) of interest I will pay on my loans. And since I've gotten myself into the habit of maxing out the account, that should lead to a retirement balance of well more than $1 million if I can do it year after year. I should also add that I do pay more than the minimum on my student loans, currently about $600 per month — nearly three times what is required.
I also want to add that Mr. Williams's advice about investing in myself is spot-on, and I will be doing that soon when I go back to school to get my MBA, which should substantially increase my earning ability, and allow me to pay off my debt that much quicker while keeping the same level of retirement funding.