Most of us, young and mature folks alike, have debts. Younger folks might be facing college loans, car payments, and credit card debt, all of which can be obstacles to their peace of mind. And those in their late 20’s and beyond can be dealing with mortgages, car loans, credit card debt, medical bills, the cost of raising children, and so much more. But even with daunting debts, I encourage people of all ages to implement plans to achieve their financial dreams, such as saving for children’s college education, or a down payment on a first home, or building a retirement nest egg.
Does a person or a family have to wait to become debt-free before taking steps to provide for their future financial dreams? My emphatic response is that it’s never too early (or too late) to continuously save and invest toward one’s future. And though it may appear extremely challenging to do so while struggling to deal with one’s debts, there are ways to address such obstacles.
There are no perfect answers to such real-life situations. However, I think I can offer a reasonable perspective that will help you understand how to plan ahead, whether you are looking decades or mere years into the future, while still dealing with the realities of the present.
The approach I like to share, whether you are just starting out or you are further along in life, is a logical approach, available to many Americans. For all who have gainful employment at large and mid-size companies, or are employed in the public sector, there is usually a clear opportunity to deal with retirement savings, no matter how large or small your personal debts. The opportunity provided by your employer is available whether you are fresh out of school or happen to be further along in your employment years.
Almost all large and mid-size corporate employers, as well as public sector employers, provide all full-time employees with the opportunity to join either a 401(k) or similar retirement plan, sponsored by the employer. Our government encourages employees to participate by giving tax deductions for participation. Regular contributions toward building a retirement nest egg are deducted from one’s regular paychecks automatically each pay period. If you participate (which is voluntary on your part), you will thank yourself down the road, when retirement finally arrives. An added bonus is that many employers make matching contributions (to a limited extent), that does not come out of the employee’s paycheck, and is thus “free” money. Take advantage to the fullest; the opportunity is practically handed to you on a silver platter. As a result, many of us are encouraged to participate in providing for our own retirement, no matter how much debt we personally owe. Never actually having this money in your hand each pay period allows you to navigate your debt without considering it.
And if you do not have the benefit of an employer-based savings plan? Start your own. Look into the myriad vehicles available and, no matter how little you put into your savings, do so consistently.
So, what do we do about the challenge of paying our debts? Won’t the stress of our debts cause us to ignore our retirement plan? The truth is, it can if we let it.
In reality, we all have debts of one form or another. Most large and small businesses have debts. Rich and poor people have debts. Our economy encourages us to borrow and spend. This applies to individuals, businesses, and the government itself.
The approach to meeting the debt payments one faces that I recommend is called budgeting. This takes planning and discipline. But, once you get used to the budget process, and stick to making the required payments, it becomes a habit, which can reduce one’s stress and worry. If you have a “bill-pay” feature at your bank or credit union, use it to regularly make your debt payments. Little by little, you will see your loan payments, and other debt obligations, become second nature – and you will see your debt decrease. It is not easy, but it will work.
Naturally, if the family budget is tight and difficult to keep up with, you also need to address the amount you are spending. In another article, I will be happy to address the issue of excessive spending. For now, I will point out that the amount you spend, in most cases, is something you have the ability to control. It will definitely require discipline and development of good budgeting habits to control one’s spending and to still address the paying of debts and saving for one’s financial dreams and aspirations. But once you get on track, the feeling of control it will create in your life will make it easier and easier to stick with it.