Saving does makes you happier, studies show
Monday, October 30, 2017 Paying off debt is not as highly regarded
The argument over whether you should invest or pay off debt usually focuses on financial numbers, such as rates of return and interest charges. Maybe happiness should be part of the equation as well.
Studies in several countries, including the U.S., Norway, Ireland and Spain, have found high levels of financial satisfaction among elderly people. Happiness with our money situation tends to rise with age, even though our income peaks in midlife and then generally declines.
Why is that? Further studies show that what we own and what we owe make a difference. One study of 3,751 U.S. adults ages 30 to 80 found that increases in assets and decreases in debt over time “contribute substantially to the life course pattern of financial satisfaction.”
Fair enough. But then two Texas researchers looked into which of those two actions — paying down debt or building up investments — was the bigger contributor. Increasing assets was the hands-down winner.
WHICH CAME FIRST: DEBT OR UNHAPPINESS?
People with more debt were less satisfied, but lowering their debt loads didn’t seem to make them much happier, says Russell James, a certified financial planner and director of graduate studies in charitable planning at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. James conducted the study with Scott Garrett, then a doctoral candidate and now a certified financial planner at Ronald Blue Trust in Houston. The pair tracked 839 adults age 50 and older for four years to measure the changes.
The researchers don’t know why the investment effect was bigger but say personality may play a role. In other words, unhappy people may be more likely to get into debt.
“If a person is dissatisfied with where they are in life, maybe that makes them spend more on credit cards,” James says.
Financial planners take a pretty balanced approach to the “invest or pay off debt” question. They encourage both. They want people to save for retirement and emergencies while educating them about the difference between “good” debt, which helps people get ahead financially, and “bad” debt, which doesn’t.
Planners typically prioritize paying off high interest rate debt such as credit cards while taking a slower approach to mortgages and student loans, which tend to have lower, taxdeductible rates.
YOU’RE CHASING THE WRONG GOAL IF ...
The people who really need to hear this message are the do-it-yourselfers going all-in on debt repayment, not realizing what they may be costing themselves in the long run. These include people who are:
• Passing up matching RRSP contributions. There’s really no excuse to turn down free money.
• Prepaying mortgages, which is some of the cheapest money available, rather than saving for retirement or paying down more expensive debt.
• Killing themselves trying to pay off student loan debt early, especially when those loans have low, fixed rates.
• Struggling with far more debt than they can realistically hope to repay.
Happiness with our money situation tends to rise with age, even though our income peaks in midlife.