As the cost of secondary education continues to rise, physicians are entering the workforce burdened with unimaginable amounts of debt. In fact, according to Educationdata.org, the average medical school debt is $215,900—which doesn’t include the debt a student might have incurred as an undergrad. A knee-jerk reaction that many physician investors have is to pay off their student loans as quickly as possible before pursuing any other investing endeavors. Although this approach is understandable, it may not be wise.
Begin by determining if your student loans are federal or private. This can make a big difference in terms of interest. In most cases, federal loans have a lower interest rate than private loans. Paying off this debt will be an important part of your financial stability, but if the interest rate is reasonable (ie, lower than what you can earn through a modest market return), it may be a better choice to pay on schedule rather than pay ahead. The extra money set aside can then be put toward retirement. Plus, student loans may give you a tax benefit—be sure to ask your financial planner or accountant for more information.
It may sound daunting to make loan payments while still squirreling away for retirement, but the alternative is even more daunting. You could be retired for more than 30 years of your life. Accumulating enough money to cover living expenses for this long is no easy feat. If you put off saving for retirement and allocate funds solely toward paying off student loans, you will never get that time back. And why is time such an important factor in retirement savings? Compound interest.
Simply put, compound interest is the interest you earn on your interest. If you invest $1,000 and earn 5% interest annually, in a year, you will have $1,050. Even if you don’t invest any additional funds, in 2 years, you’ll have $1,102.50. The more time you can invest, the more the amount will compound.
Granted, you may have a specific reason for paying down your student loan debt ahead of time. Maybe you are anxious about it. Maybe the debt was a small amount, and you want to be rid of it. Maybe the interest on the loan is greater than any possible market return. Any or all of these reasons may warrant a change in strategy. But always remember that time is a great asset in wealth accumulation and not something you can get back.