Should I Invest if I Still Have Debt?

As you start to establish yourself financially, you may come to a crossroads: should you pay off debt or invest in your future? It can be confusing to know what to do in this situation, especially if you have multiple financial goals you’re saving toward.

The first step is to look at the numbers, then to consider your preferences. There is no one “right” answer to this question. Let’s start by taking a look at the numbers around major financial milestones like your student loan, buying a home, and saving for retirement.

Let’s say your student loan is $75,000. Buying a new home might cost $350,000, and you might plan to need $2,000,000 for a comfortable retirement. Everyone’s numbers will look a bit different, so feel free to take some time to calculate yours.

Once you’ve put your estimated numbers on a page, what jumps out at you? It’s hard not to notice that retirement is quite a bit more expensive than the others. This isn’t too much of a surprise if you consider what retirement is: living for decades with no salary.

While you might be tempted to put all your extra income immediately into your retirement fund, it’s not necessarily the winning decision when it comes to whether to pay off loans or invest. Let’s look deeper.

How Important is Paying Off Your Student Loans?

If you’re like the average student, you’ve borrowed $30,000 or more to pursue a bachelor’s degree . If you went on to graduate school, your student loan debt may be even higher.

Most federal student loans have a repayment period of 10 to 30 years. You may opt to make the minimum payment each month for the duration of your loan repayment plan, or you might decide to pay yours off early.

One benefit to paying off a student loan early is that you reduce your debt to income ratio (that’s how much debt you have compared to how much income you have). This might raise your credit score and help you qualify for other financial solutions.

Or, you might decide to continue paying your student loan while investing in other areas of your life, like retirement or buying a home.

Know Your Student Loan Interest Rates

Before you can decide whether to pay off student loans or save for other things, look at what you’re paying in interest for your student loans. If the rate you locked in when you took out your loan is higher than current rates, you might consider refinancing. If you have multiple student loans, you could potentially consolidate and refinance them for a lower interest rate.

Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that refinancing federal student loans means you’re no longer eligible for federal benefits and protections, like income-driven repayment or loan forgiveness programs, so it makes sense to weigh the potential benefits and risks of refinancing before taking the plunge.

Comparing interest rates is an exercise in opportunity cost. Any decision to pursue one goal means you’re missing out on something else, but ideally, we look to minimize opportunity costs when assessing financial trade-offs. In this instance, the opportunity cost is leaving potential investment earnings on the table.

Let’s say you recently refinanced your student loan from 5% to 3.5%. Given the competitive rate on your newly refinanced student loan, you could consider continuing to make the monthly payment on your loan and allocating the extra cash flow elsewhere — like investing for retirement or buying a home.

Remember, we want to think about interest rates in terms of opportunity cost. What would it look like if you paid off your loan early? Your student loan costs you 3.5% annually, and that’s what you’ll “save” if you accelerate your payoff by $500 per month.

Once you paid off the loan early, you could invest your money in an asset class — such as the stock market — with the potential to earn a rate of return that’s higher than 3.5%. Historically, the stock market has returned an average of 10%. This investing can be done within a retirement account, whether a 401(k) or an IRA.

That said, stock market returns are erratic, and the annualized return figures you often hear quoted are just that — an average. Investing is risky, and there is always a chance that returns over the next five, 10, or 20 years will not outpace the interest that you are currently making on your student loan payment.

No one, not even a financial planner, has a crystal ball and can see into the future. This is why we also need to take into account your personal preferences.

If you feel like you are truly missing out on investing in an IRA or saving for a home, then investing in those things might be the right path for you. If your student debt makes you feel burdened and miserable, you could focus on that instead.

Paying Off Student Loans vs. Investing

“So, should I pay off student loans or invest,” you ask.

The answer is…it’s complicated.

Student loans often come with low interest rates, which means you’re not paying a huge amount of extra money over the years (like you would with a credit card, for example). So it’s low-cost debt. That means that if you want to invest in other areas of your life, such as saving for retirement or to buy a house, you may be able to do both.

Contributing to a Retirement Account

Many Americans are vastly under-saving for retirement, and with so many employers offering a 401(k) matching program, not contributing is like throwing money down the drain.

There is no standard for match programs — they can range from meager to generous. Between your contributions and your employer’s, it is often recommended that you save between 15% and 20% of your salary for retirement. You can do this by contributing the full allowable amount to your 401(k), which is $19,500 in 2021.

If you don’t have access to a 401(k) — perhaps you’re self-employed — you can save for retirement with other investment accounts like an online IRA or a brokerage account. No matter which account you use, you might want to consider putting that money to work with a long-term investment strategy. For example, you might choose to deploy a strategy of low-cost mutual funds that invests in stocks and bonds.

Buying a Home

Financial planners don’t all agree on whether a home is a good investment. That is not to say that a home is not a good financial goal; if it’s a priority to you, then it’s great. This is simply a commentary on whether a home produces a good return on investment.

Although a house may not have as high an investment return as other asset classes, such as the stock market, a house provides something that a stock or bond cannot — immediate utility. You cannot sleep and eat inside a stock or a bond.

While home values do typically grow over time, you must also take into consideration the costs of buying and owning a home, such as the interest paid on the mortgage, property taxes, and repairs and maintenance. That said, homeownership can be rewarding, and can pay major dividends down the line. One big benefit is having no monthly housing expenses (like rent or a mortgage) in retirement.

The Takeaway

There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to investing while juggling debt. Undoubtedly, the biggest ticket item you’ll need to invest for is retirement — but whether you invest in retirement before or after paying down debt depends on your personal preferences and situation.

One thing to remember: Financial tradeoff decisions don’t always have to be all-or-nothing. You might choose to split the difference by putting a little here and a little there. For example, you might contribute $300 per month to your 401(k) and $200 to a high-yield savings account for your down payment for a house, all while paying off student loans.

With SoFi Invest®, you can invest in traditional and Roth IRAs, crypto, or ETFs, with hands-on active investing or automated investing. The choice is yours — based on your personal situation, goals, and preferences.

Find out how to invest for your future with SoFi Invest.

SoFi Invest®
The information provided is not meant to provide investment or financial advice. Investment decisions should be based on an individual’s specific financial needs, goals and risk profile. SoFi can’t guarantee future financial performance. Advisory services offered through SoFi Wealth, LLC. SoFi Securities, LLC, member FINRA / SIPC . SoFi Invest refers to the three investment and trading platforms operated by Social Finance, Inc. and its affiliates (described below). Individual customer accounts may be subject to the terms applicable to one or more of the platforms below.
1) Automated Investing—The Automated Investing platform is owned by SoFi Wealth LLC, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor (“Sofi Wealth“). Brokerage services are provided to SoFi Wealth LLC by SoFi Securities LLC, an affiliated SEC registered broker dealer and member FINRA/SIPC, (“Sofi Securities).

2) Active Investing—The Active Investing platform is owned by SoFi Securities LLC. Clearing and custody of all securities are provided by APEX Clearing Corporation.

3) Cryptocurrency is offered by SoFi Digital Assets, LLC, a FinCEN registered Money Service Business.

For additional disclosures related to the SoFi Invest platforms described above, including state licensure of Sofi Digital Assets, LLC, please visit
Neither the Investment Advisor Representatives of SoFi Wealth, nor the Registered Representatives of SoFi Securities are compensated for the sale of any product or service sold through any SoFi Invest platform. Information related to lending products contained herein should not be construed as an offer or pre-qualification for any loan product offered by SoFi Lending Corp and/or its affiliates.
External Websites: The information and analysis provided through hyperlinks to third party websites, while believed to be accurate, cannot be guaranteed by SoFi. Links are provided for informational purposes and should not be viewed as an endorsement.
SoFi Student Loan Refinance
Notice: SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income-Driven Repayment plans, including Income-Contingent Repayment or PAYE. SoFi always recommends that you consult a qualified financial advisor to discuss what is best for your unique situation.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.
Crypto: Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies aren’t endorsed or guaranteed by any government, are volatile, and involve a high degree of risk. Consumer protection and securities laws don’t regulate cryptocurrencies to the same degree as traditional brokerage and investment products. Research and knowledge are essential prerequisites before engaging with any cryptocurrency. US regulators, including FINRA , the SEC , and the CFPB , have issued public advisories concerning digital asset risk. Cryptocurrency purchases should not be made with funds drawn from financial products including student loans, personal loans, mortgage refinancing, savings, retirement funds or traditional investments. Limitations apply to trading certain crypto assets and may not be available to residents of all states.
Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs): Investors should carefully consider the information contained in the prospectus, which contains the Fund’s investment objectives, risks, charges, expenses, and other relevant information. You may obtain a prospectus from the Fund company’s website or by email customer service at [email protected] Please read the prospectus carefully prior to investing. Shares of ETFs must be bought and sold at market price, which can vary significantly from the Fund’s net asset value (NAV). Investment returns are subject to market volatility and shares may be worth more or less their original value when redeemed. The diversification of an ETF will not protect against loss. An ETF may not achieve its stated investment objective. Rebalancing and other activities within the fund may be subject to tax consequences.