It’s a catch-22: You feel that you should focus on paying down debt, but you also want to save for retirement. It may be comforting to know you’re not alone.

According to an Employee Benefit Research Institute survey, 18% of today’s workers describe their debt level as a major problem, while 41% say it’s a minor problem. And workers who say that debt is a problem are also more likely to feel stressed about their retirement savings prospects.1 Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the largest proportion (21%) of those who have taken a loan from their employer-sponsored retirement plans have done so to pay off debt.2 Borrowing from your plan can have negative consequences on your retirement preparedness down the road. Loan limits and other restrictions generally apply as well.

The key in managing both debt repayment and retirement savings is to understand a few basic financial concepts that will help you develop a strategy to tackle both.

Compare potential rate of return with interest rate on debt

Probably the most common way to decide whether to pay off debt or to make investments is to consider whether you could earn a higher rate of return (after accounting for taxes) on your investments than the interest rate you pay on the debt. For example, say you have a credit card with a $10,000 balance that carries an interest rate of 18%. By paying off that balance, you’re effectively getting an 18% return on your money. That means your investments would generally need to earn a consistent, after-tax return greater than 18% to make saving for retirement preferable to paying off that debt. That’s a tall order for even the most savvy professional investors.

And bear in mind that all investing involves risk; investment returns are anything but guaranteed. In general, the higher the rate of return, the greater the risk. If you make investments rather than pay off debt and your investments incur losses, you may still have debts to pay, but you won’t have had the benefit of any gains. By contrast, the return that comes from eliminating high-interest-rate debt is a sure thing.

Are you eligible for an employer match?

If you have the opportunity to save for retirement via an employer-sponsored plan that matches a portion of your contributions, the debt-versus-savings decision can become even more complicated.

Let’s say your company matches 50% of your contributions up to 6% of your salary. This means you’re essentially earning a 50% return on that portion of your retirement account contributions. That’s why it may make sense to save at least enough to get any employer match before focusing on debt.

And don’t forget the potential tax benefits of retirement plan contributions. If you contribute pre-tax dollars to your plan account, you’re immediately deferring anywhere from 10% to 39.6% in taxes, depending on your federal tax rate. If you’re making after-tax Roth contributions, you’re creating a source of tax-free retirement income.3

Consider the types of debt

Your decision can also be influenced by the type of debt you have. For example, if you itemize deductions on your federal tax return, the interest you pay on a mortgage is generally deductible — so even if you could pay off your mortgage, you may not want to. Let’s say you’re paying 6% on your mortgage and 18% on your credit card debt, and your employer matches 50% of your retirement account contributions. You might consider directing some of your available resources to paying off the credit card debt and some toward your retirement account in order to get the full company match, while continuing to pay the mortgage to receive the tax deduction for the interest.

Other considerations

There’s another good reason to explore ways to address both debt repayment and retirement savings at once. Time is your best ally when saving for retirement. If you say to yourself, “I’ll wait to start saving until my debts are completely paid off,” you run the risk that you’ll never get to that point, because your good intentions about paying off your debt may falter. Postponing saving also reduces the number of years you have left to save for retirement.

It might also be easier to address both goals if you can cut your interest payments by refinancing debt. For example, you might be able to consolidate multiple credit card payments by rolling them over to a new credit card or a debt consolidation loan that has a lower interest rate.

Bear in mind that even if you decide to focus on retirement savings, you should make sure that you’re able to make at least the minimum monthly payments on your debt. Failure to do so can result in penalties and increased interest rates, which would defeat the overall purpose of your debt repayment/retirement savings strategy.

Prepared by Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. Copyright 2017

One way to help protect your portfolio against a sudden spike in inflation is by investing in Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS).

TIPS are guaranteed by the federal government as to the timely payment of principal and interest. They are sold in $100 increments and available in maturities of 5, 10, and 30 years. The principal is automatically adjusted twice a year to match any increases or decreases in the Consumer Price Index (CPI). If the CPI moves up or down, the Treasury recalculates your principal.

A fixed rate of interest is paid twice a year based on the current principal, so the amount of interest may also fluctuate. Thus, you are trading the certainty of knowing exactly how much interest you’ll receive for the assurance that your investment will maintain its purchasing power over time.

TIPS pay lower interest rates than equivalent Treasury securities that don’t adjust for inflation. The difference between the yield of nominal bonds and inflation-linked bonds with similar maturities is called the breakeven inflation rate. It is the cost for inflation protection and a market-based measure of expected inflation.

If you hold TIPS to maturity, you will receive the greater of the inflation-adjusted principal or the amount of your original investment; this provides the benefit of keeping up with inflation while protecting against deflation. Considering that there has been some inflation every year over the past 60 years, the principal of TIPS held to maturity is likely to be higher than when they were purchased.1

The return and principal value of TIPS on the secondary market fluctuate with market conditions. If not held to maturity, TIPS may be worth more or less than their original value. They are also sensitive to movements in interest rates. When interest rates rise, the value of existing TIPS will typically fall. Because headline CPI includes food and energy prices, TIPS can also be affected by volatile oil prices.

Unless you own TIPS in a tax-deferred account, you must pay federal income tax each year on the interest income plus any increase in principal, even though you won’t receive that money until they mature.

1 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017 (data through December 2016)
Prepared by Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. Copyright 2017

Women in the workforce generally earn less than men. While the gender pay gap is narrowing, it is still significant. The difference in wages, coupled with other factors, can lead to a shortfall in retirement savings for women.

Statistically speaking

Generally, women work fewer years and contribute less toward their retirement than men, resulting in lower lifetime savings. According to the U.S. Department of Labor:

  • 56.7% of women work at gainful employment, which accounts for 46.8% of the labor force
  • The median annual earnings for women is $39,621 — 21.4% less than the median annual earnings for men
  • Women are more likely to work in part-time jobs that don’t qualify for a retirement plan
  • Of the 63 million working women between the ages of 21 and 64, just 44% participate in a retirement plan
  • Working women are more likely than men to interrupt their careers to take care of family members
  • On average, a woman retiring at age 65 can expect to live another 20 years, two years longer than a man of the same age

All else being equal, these factors mean women are more likely than men to face a retirement income shortfall. If you do find yourself facing a potential shortfall, here are some options to consider.

Plan now

Estimate how much income you’ll need. Find out how much you can expect to receive from Social Security, pension plans, and other available sources. Then set a retirement savings goal and keep track of your progress.

Save, save, save

Save as much as you can. Take full advantage of IRAs and employer-sponsored retirement plans such as 401(k)s. Any investment earnings in these plans accumulate tax deferred — or tax-free, in the case of Roth accounts. Once you reach age 50, utilize special “catch-up” rules that let you make contributions over and above the normal limits (you can contribute an extra $1,000 to IRAs, and an extra $6,000 to 401(k) plans in 2017). If your employer matches your contributions, try to contribute at least as much as necessary to get the full company match — it’s free money. Distributions from traditional IRAs and most employer-sponsored retirement plans are taxed as ordinary income. Withdrawals prior to age 59½ may be subject to a 10% federal income tax penalty.

Delay retirement

One way of dealing with a projected income shortfall is to stay in the workforce longer than you had planned. By doing so, you can continue supporting yourself with a salary rather than dipping into your retirement savings. And if you delay taking Social Security benefits, your monthly payment will increase.

Think about investing more aggressively

It’s not uncommon for women to invest more conservatively than men. You may want to revisit your investment choices, particularly if you’re still at least 10 to 15 years from retirement. Consider whether it makes sense to be slightly more aggressive. If you’re willing to accept more risk, you may be able to increase your potential return. However, there are no guarantees; as you take on more risk, your potential for loss (including the risk of loss of principal) grows as well.

Consider these common factors that can affect retirement income

When planning for your retirement, consider investment risk, inflation, taxes, and health-related expenses — factors that can affect your income and savings. While many of these same issues can affect your income during your working years, you may not notice their influence because you’re not depending on your savings as a major source of income. However, these common factors can greatly affect your retirement income, so it’s important to plan for them.

Prepared by Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. Copyright 2017

How much do you know about market basics? Put your investing IQ to the test with this quiz on stocks, bonds, and mutual funds.

Questions

1. What does it mean to buy stock in a company?

a. The investor loans money to the company

b. The investor becomes a part owner of the company

c. The investor is liable for the company’s debts

2. Which of the following statements about stock indexes is correct?

a. A stock index is an indicator of stock price movements

b. There are many different types of stock indexes

c. They can be used as benchmarks to compare the performance of an individual investment to a group of its peers

d. All of the above

3. What is a bond?

a. An equity security

b. A nonnegotiable note

c. A debt investment in which an investor loans money to an entity

4. What kind of bond pays no periodic interest?

a. Zero-coupon

b. Floating-rate

c. Tax-exempt

5. What is a mutual fund?

a. A portfolio of securities assembled by an investment company

b. An investment technique of buying a fixed dollar amount of a particular investment regularly

c. A legal document that provides details about an investment

6. What is the difference between mutual fund share classes?

a. The investment advisers responsible for managing each class

b. The investments each class makes

c. The fees and expenses charged by each fund class

Answers

1. b. The investor becomes a part owner of the company. Stocks are often referred to as equities because they represent an ownership position. As part owners, shareholders assume both the potential financial risks and benefits of this position, but without the responsibility of running the company.

2. d. All of the above. A stock index measures and reports value changes in representative stock groupings. A broad-based stock index represents a diverse cross-section of stocks and reflects movements in the market as a whole. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, NASDAQ Composite Index, and S&P 500 are three of the most widely used U.S. stock indexes. There are also more narrowly focused indexes that track stocks in a particular industry or market segment.

3. c. A debt investment in which an investor loans money to an entity. Unlike shareholders, bondholders do not have ownership rights in a company. Instead, investors who buy bonds are lending their money to the issuer (such as a municipality or a corporation) and thus become the issuer’s creditors.

4. a. Zero-coupon. Unlike many types of bonds, zero-coupon bonds pay no periodic interest. They are purchased at a discount, meaning the purchase price is lower than the face value. When the bond matures, the difference between the purchase price and that face value is the investment’s return.

5. a. A portfolio of securities assembled by an investment company. A mutual fund is a pooled investment that may combine dozens to hundreds of stocks, bonds, and other securities into one portfolio shared by many investors.

6. c. The fees and expenses charged by each fund class. A mutual fund may offer various share classes to investors, most commonly A, B, and C. This gives an investor the opportunity to select a share class best suited to his or her investment goals.

Mutual funds are sold by prospectus. Please consider the investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses carefully before investing. The prospectus, which contains this and other information about the investment company, can be obtained from your financial professional. Be sure to read the prospectus carefully before deciding whether to invest.

Prepared by Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. Copyright 2017

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) adjusts interest rates to help keep inflation near a 2% target. The FOMC’s preferred measure of inflation is the Price Index for Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE), primarily because it covers a broad range of prices and picks up shifts in consumer behavior. The Fed also focuses on core inflation measures, which strip out volatile food and energy categories that are less likely to respond to monetary policy.

The typical American might be more familiar with the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which was the Fed’s favorite inflation gauge until 2012. The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) is used to determine cost-of-living adjustments for federal income taxes and Social Security.

The CPI only measures the prices that consumers actually pay for a fixed basket of goods, whereas the PCE tracks the prices of everything that is consumed, regardless of who pays. For example, the CPI includes a patient’s out-of-pocket costs for a doctor’s visit, while the PCE considers the total charge billed to insurance companies, the government, and the patient.

The PCE methodology uses current and past expenditures to adjust category weights, capturing consumers’ tendency to substitute less expensive goods for more expensive items. The weighting of CPI categories is only adjusted every two years, so the index does not respond quickly to changes in consumer spending habits, but it provides a good comparison of prices over time.

According to the CPI, inflation rose 2.1% in 2016 — right in line with the 20-year average of 2.13%.1 This level of inflation may not be a big strain on the family budget, but even moderate inflation can have a negative impact on the purchasing power of fixed-income investments. For example, a hypothetical investment earning 5% annually would have a “real return” of only 3% during a period of 2% annual inflation.

Of course, if inflation picks up speed, it could become a more pressing concern for consumers and investors.

1 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017 (data through December 2016)
Prepared by Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. Copyright 2017