Ask Money

Should I cash out a Roth IRA to pay a student loan?

Marketplace Staff Sep 27, 2013

Question:

I’m 29, finishing a Master’s program in Rangeland Ecology and Management. I’m down to thesis writing, so I haven’t been a full time student for a bit and my student loan grace period is up.  I have about $40,000 in student loans, APR 6.8%.  I have no income at the moment, but I’m optimistic that I will be finished with school and have a job by May.  So I’m not worried about making minimum payments, possibly making big payments depending on the quality of the job.

Thing is, I happen to have about $17,000 just sitting in a Roth IRA.  Does it make economic sense to be sitting on this when I have a sizable debt?

The student loans are the only debt I have.

-Chris

Response:

Chris Farrell Sep 27, 2013 Economics Editor
I would leave the Roth-IRA alone. By the way, congratulations on having such a healthy sum of money in a retirement savings account.

The money in the Roth should continue to grow and, when it’s finally time to retire, you’ll be able to withdraw the gains tax free. You don’t want to lose the advantage of allowing your retirement savings to compound over a long period of time. Compound interest is what Albert Einstein called the “most powerful force in the universe.”

An additional advantage of the Roth is that it can also act as an “emergency” emergency fund. Since the money that goes into a Roth is aftertax dollars, in a pinch you can always withdraw your contributions tax-free and penalty-free. Just don’t tap any of the gain. Any gain withdrawn early is taxable and comes with a financial penalty.

Your student loans have let you use OPM– Other People’s Money — to fund part of your education. The loan has allowed you to get your education quickly and the various repayment plans give you some flexibility going forward. You’ll pay the loan off from the return on the investment in your education. I would pay the loan off as fast as practical, but I wouldn’t touch retirement savings to accomplish that goal. 

We’re here to help you navigate this changed world and economy.

Our mission at Marketplace is to raise the economic intelligence of the country. It’s a tough task, but it’s never been more important.

In the past year, we’ve seen record unemployment, stimulus bills, and reddit users influencing the stock market. Marketplace helps you understand it all, will fact-based, approachable, and unbiased reporting.

Generous support from listeners and readers is what powers our nonprofit news—and your donation today will help provide this essential service. For just $5/month, you can sustain independent journalism that keeps you and thousands of others informed.