Pay Off Debt or Build Your Savings?

Pay Off Debt or Build Your Savings?

Building emergency savings and aggressively paying down debt are two common financial goals that many consumers aim to balance. Determining which one to prioritize often confuses me. When you have limited extra income available each month, should you focus this towards adding to your rainy day cash reserves or making above minimum payments on balances owed to pay them down faster? What are the advantages of each option in various situations?

The High Cost of Debt

Carrying balances on credit cards and loans with high-interest rates can significantly increase the total amount you end up paying. Credit card debt tends to have very high compounding interest rates, often 15% or more. If you carry a credit card balance of $5,000 at a 15% APR, you’ll pay over $750 a year in interest charges alone. Over several years, that interest adds up – you could end up paying double or more the original balance! Aggressively paying down high-interest debt saves you money directly by reducing what you pay in compound interest charges. Prioritizing paying off credit card balances, personal loans, or lines of credit with interest rates above 10% can make sound financial sense.

The Importance of Savings

While paying down existing debt is crucial, it is also vital to have short-term, accessible savings set aside for emergencies and unexpected expenses. If you suddenly lose your source of income due to job loss or cannot work for medical reasons, savings project to help cover the living costs while you get back on your feet. Additionally, even routine financial surprises – like vehicle repairs, dental work not covered by insurance, or urgent home repairs like fixing a roof leak – can become real issues or lead to utilizing expensive credit if you do not have savings available.

Do the Math

Where to Get the Best Return Whether it makes more sense to focus on eliminating debt or building savings depends significantly on the type of debt and its interest rates. Take time to properly evaluate and compare the interest rates you pay on debts like credit cards or loans versus the potential growth you might get by putting cash into savings instead. For example, if you carry $15,000 in credit card balances at 19% interest, paying that down aggressively can effectively provide a guaranteed, tax-free 19% return on your money – which likely beats the performance you could expect from most investment or savings accounts after factoring in taxes and inflation. Alternately, if you have a fixed-rate mortgage at 4% interest and low cash reserves, putting money into savings likely earns better short-term returns and stability.

Find the Right Balance for Your Situation

Personal factors are also related to job security, plans, health status, family obligations, and more, which can impact whether you should prioritize debt payments or savings. Evaluate your whole scenario. For example, if you have an unstable job or chronic health conditions, having accessible savings should move higher on the priority list to hedge against potential loss of income. Alternatively, minimizing debt obligations and interest costs early on makes good sense if you have very secure employment, low rates on debt, and upcoming plans to finance a large purchase like a property.

Make a Plan and Stick to It

Once you decide where focusing first fits best for your situation between rapidly paying down debt or aggressively saving, make a specific plan for it. Analyze your budget and cash flows to find areas where you can cut back on optional spending to dedicate extra to your priority financial goal every month. Come up with a timeline of monthly allocations along with target dates for milestones, like being debt-free or hitting savings thresholds—Automate payday transfers to fund debt payments or savings deposits. Seamlessly Track progress frequently as well – watching account balances for debt go down, and savings go up keeps momentum and motivation high. Celebrate your wins and stay strictly on top of your money plan.

Celebrate Small Wins Along the Way

Making significant headway paying off debt balances or hitting specific savings amount goals can take months or even years, depending on your starting point and available funds each month. Looking at the longer horizon needed can sometimes seem daunting one year in. That is why consistently tracking progress and celebrating small victories is valuable – appreciate every $1,000 put towards debt elimination or each $500 added to your nest egg. Seeing regular positive steps forward makes staying on the strategic money management course much more accessible, compounding towards the eventual achievement of becoming debt-free or financially cushioned with emergency savings. Pat yourself on the back for each gain made.

 Case Study: Emily’s Financial Journey

Emily is a 32-year-old marketing manager who makes $60,000 per year. She is struggling with determining whether she should focus more effort on paying down her credit card and student loan debt faster or building up a better emergency fund in her savings account.

Emily has $18,000 worth of credit card balances across three different cards, with interest rates ranging from 14% to 22%. Additionally, she has $25,000 remaining in student loans from her undergraduate college degree at a 6% fixed interest rate. Her minimum monthly payments for both total around $850.

In terms of savings, Emily has $2,300 currently set aside in a basic savings account, earning 0.20% APY interest. She tries to add around $200 per month to her savings but often needs to withdraw money from savings for unexpected costs that set her back. She feels she needs much more accessible savings for unplanned expenses and potential job loss cushioning.

With Emily’s above financial snapshot, this blog post weighs the options of either putting over $1,000 extra per month towards rapidly paying down her debt or boosting her savings contributions up to $750 monthly instead. The post also details the factors Emily needs to consider, like her job security and health, creating a detailed tracking plan, and staying motivated over time.

Key Takeaways

  • High-interest credit card debt accumulates rapidly, costing multiples of the original balance over time if unpaid.
  • Savings provide stability for expected and unexpected expenses, preventing a debt spiral.
  • Compare interest rates on debts vs potential investment returns to optimize money allocation.
  • Personal factors like job and family outlook should inform debt vs savings priority.
  • Track progress and celebrate small milestones to stay motivated long-term.


There are compelling cases for speedily repaying high-cost debt to avoid wasting money on interest and consistently building emergency cash reserves for stability through savings accounts or investments. Evaluate your unique financial and life scenario, run the mathematical numbers comparing rates of debts vs. savings returns, develop a detailed long-term money plan tailored for either rapidly eliminating debt or boosting short-term savings, track progress religiously, and stay motivated towards achieving your priority money goals through celebrating small gains along the way. With focused effort and discipline, you can take control of your finances for the better, whether by minimizing debt burdens or establishing critical cash buffers.