The Hello Bar is a simple notification bar that engages users and communicates a call to action.

Which Is Harder: Paying off Debt or Saving Money?

by J. Money on Tuesday, May 28, 2013

can't decide hands

Every week I get asked whether someone should pay off their debt first or save instead, and every week I pretty much say the same thing: Go with whichever one makes you feel better.

You really can’t go wrong doing either, so – to me – it’s more about what will keep you motivated to get the job done over the nitty gritty details of one being 1/2 a percent higher in interest than the other (or whatever the case may be). This is where people tend to disagree with me out there, but since I’m the one getting emailed the questions I get to give out the opinions ;)

I then sit back and enjoy seeing which route people end up choosing. Sometimes they go back and forth and end up doing a nice balance of both (50% debt paying and 50% saving), but usually one side wins out over the other. I think because it’s easier to focus solely on one and KILL IT rather than half it on both and take double the time. But again, either route is awesome and better than doing none!

I often wonder afterwards, though, which side – indeed – IS the easiest to accomplish? If you were forced to choose? Is it debt cuz you hate it so much and there’s an absolute number attached to it? Or is it savings cuz having tons of money in the bank is sexy as hell?? And it’s more fun to watch money pile up than go away??

My personal answer usually goes back and forth all depending on my mood and stage of life at the time, but I have been seeing a common denominator that usually sways me: The number that’s attached to the goal. It doesn’t necessarily matter how big or small it is (although it does help – I’m much more likely to pick the tinier one than a large gargantuan one no matter which side of the debt/savings fence it’s on!), but it’s more about the fact that it DOES have a number at all.

For example, if someone told me I had to either “save for a rainy day” or pay off that $800 car bill, I’m choosing that $800 car bill all day long. I know the amount that it’s going to take and I can then figure out the best way to get there. Who knows how much that rain would cost? It could be $500 or it could be $5,000! And without any solid number being clarified it’s hard as $hit to choose. At least for me.

I NEED NUMBERS!!

So that’s how I usually pick the side to shoot for. The goals that have an end point that I can understand and work towards. All those vague ones go out the window and I just never know where – or how – to start! Which means Savings is usually harder to do for me since Debt almost always has an ending number.

Now if BOTH sides had a number attached, and it was the same number, then we have a ballgame ;) And in which case I revert back to my trusty “which makes me feel better?” deciding factor assuming most of the interest percentages weren’t drastically different.

Knowing that I can be an odd ball out, though, I decided to dig in deeper and do some extra research for once to see what others think about this. And by “research” I mean “post the question on Twitter and Facebook” haha… How can you beat real-time thoughts from real-life people?? :) I don’t need no stinkin’ scientific polls to solve this debate for me – they’re always skewed anyways!

Here are what the people of Twitter chimed in with:

  • @tammycrowley: saving money
  • @mrsmoneym: …I think saving money is harder. It’s no longer an emergency.
  • @iHeartBudgets: Paying off debt for me. I can save and save, but actually pulling the trigger to put that money on debt is TOUGH!
  • @lelandstrott: Since I have debt, saving money is harder. I want to put every extra penny toward paying that off.
  • @MsWalton: Saving money.
  • @kelligrant: Saving. Debt, you have min monthly due, being in red freakier. No forced savings and easy to see $ as waiting to be spent.
  • @jjeffrose: paying off debt was harder for me. Mostly because I was in denial that the debt I had was wrong
  • @BryanMarsden: Paying off debt. I have all my savings automated to avoid the stupid side of my brain. :P
  • @MyFinancialRoad: definitely saving money. You can be motivated to break debt but saving $100 feels like saving $1 whereas spending $100=death
  • @HassleFreeSaver: Saving money for sure. I think saving is seen as optional whereas paying off debt is seen as required.
  • @EmpoweredDollar: Saving money is harder while I’m paying off debt. I end up dipping into my savings to get rid of my loans faster!
  • @alexproaps: Saving money, “paying myself” monthly for a future purchase is harder. I want to be debt free & see that 0 balance!
  • @Sustainlifeblog: saving b/c interest rates are so low. debt is scary, not having savings is not AS scary.
  • @meimur: Saving $! I don’t carry a balance on my CC, but still don’t have enough at the end of the month to put into savings.
  • @RamblingsbyRach: Debt! My student loans are endless and the interest really makes progress difficult.
  • @ontargetcoach: I believe it’s the same muscle, just flexed differently.
  • @RedDebted: Definitely saving. Once you submit a payment, it’s done! With saving you need more self control…
  • @Howieinqiri: for me it is saving money. Especially since what I want to save usually goes towards student loans.
  • @moteviolence: Saving money is harder!

So it looks like my friends from Twitter think saving money is harder too. Tons of GREAT points up there yeah? I especially like the ones on being scary and how savings isn’t a “requirement,” even though we all know it should be.

Now here is what Facebook said:

  • Agatha Kulesza — Hmmmm….for me the hardest part was the mental shift I had to go through to make saving money a priority over paying off debt. So when I was really obsessed with paying off debt it was hard to save money, but when I shifted focus to paying myself first & making it a priority saving money became easy. Does this solve the debate for all eternity? Probably not. But…..
  • Eric Rosenberg — Saving money is tougher, particularly when you don’t have a specific goal. When you are paying off debt, there is always an end in sight. When saving, you are dealing with a lifelong task.
  • Leigh Morlock — Saving money.
  • Dawn Allcot — Saving for sure, mostly for the reasons Eric stated above. Also, seeing that nice lump sum in my bank account just makes me want to SPEND it, whereas seeing a zero balance on my credit card makes me NOT want to use it.
  • Jennie LeAnne — I think it is the type of dept. For me the dept part is harder but that is because my only dept is my mortgage and the goal of paying it off seems so far away at the moment. On the other hands, saving with specific goals in mind has me much more motivated.
  • Trinnie Schley — Saving money! Paying off debt was easy for us…but now with no debt, it’s hard to not use the extra moeny as disposable income. I need to set it aside
  • Jill Cohen Heineck — Saving money! So much easier to see results paying off debt!
  • Maria Nedeva — Saving money.
  • Sarah Rivera Corrice — Saving, for me.
  • James Ryan Moreau — Paying off debt, especially after career instability for an extended period of time.
  • Christopher Foster — saving for sure
  • Carla Wilson — Both, but I lean toward saving….
  • Erin Carpenter — Saving, because I feel I can’t do it until we pay off debt.
  • Rachael Cleveland — Ditto to Erin Carpenter’s response
  • Jenny Ingram — Saving. If I didn’t have debt to pay off, I could save. I know, I SHOULD, but, yadda, yadda… money – GAH!
  • Kristin Austin — Saving
  • Dawn MacNeil — How are they different? As long as you are in debt, your “savings ” don’t count.
  • Holly Hewitt Cantu — Paying off debt so you can save money!! We are doing the Dave Ramsey and with just having a baby in December it has been a lot harder than I thought it would be. (Mainly we working vs spending time with baby!!)
  • Megan Harris — Saving!>
  • Warren Talbot — Debt. Saving is easier if you have a goal/dream in mind. Debt is harder to get excited about.
  • Sherrian Crumbley — saving
  • Jennifer Gniadecki — Paying off debt.
  • Sara Marie Beall — For us, the debt is harder.
  • Nancy L. Thomas — Ditto to Rachael Cleveland!
  • Zina Lee — Debt. Saving is fun, you are augmenting your future. Debt is a chore. I limit my debt to house and car!
  • Raymond Miley II — Saving
  • Kelly Drew Levinson — Saving
  • Kelsey Jones — Definitely Debt. I am a master avoider/justifyier for debt!!!
  • Angela Hill — Paying off debt.
  • Joanna Sprik — SAVING!!! :)
  • Ricardo Ocampo — Saving. Pain-pleasure principle all the way. We associate more pain to saving because it means we deprive ourselves today for a financial benefit sometime in the uncertain future whereas with debt we can agree that being late on a payment will exponentially increase the pain by way of credit loss, damage to scores, and higher payment / rates.
  • Talisha Herald — Paying off debt
  • Tonya Rap Rapley — Saving for me.
  • Marilyn Nash — Paying off debt because it could continue to accumulate if you don’t have the means to zero-out balances right away.
  • Nick Jarrett — Saving is harder for me. It is hard not to spend the money on vacations. :)
  • Beth Beswick — Juggling the 2. It doesn’t seem worth it to save money and earn 1-10% while your credit card (or other debt) is racking up 15-25%.
  • Heather Andress — Doing both at the same time.
  • Melissa Avalos — Saving money!!! Why is it so hard?!?!
  • Mahesh Kommareddi — Saving!
  • Rose Kelly — As I have never had debts, I would have to go with saving :)
  • Cyndi Koehler Michalski — Saving money – because there is always something you need to fix or buy!
  • Jessica Rice — Saving!
  • Jay MacLean — Both. I have a hard time saving money and I’m not making any progress on my debt beyond minimum payments. Ugh!
  • N.m. Edwards — Both…..frustrated right now as we speak
  • Smart Military Money — I’d say saving is harder. When you’re paying off debt, you know what finite number you have to hit. Savings is a bit more difficult for people to plan. Depending on what you’re saving for, it can be more difficult to pick a nice, round number to save. So when you have a monthly payment for student loans, you know what you need to pay. When you decide it’s time to save for retirement, well, you have to do some math. And that alone makes it harder for people to save. -Christian L.
  • Julie DeVisser — For me? Saving money has always been more difficult.
  • The 20-Something Budget — In theory, neither is more difficult – you could easily throw the same amount of money in either direction. However, I’m much more frustrated with debt repayment because it’s mandatory, you have interest rates working against you, and being in debt makes everything else more difficult (financially speaking). Saving allows you to make a lot more choices as to when and how you use your money.
  • More Faith — Debt sucks. Debt doesn’t equal wealth and vice versa, which means debt sucks more.
  • Christine McMillen Vandeneykel — Budgets are like diets. I hate them but need them.
  • Christy Reichert Licklider — Saving
  • Natalie Akpele Carney — I’d have to say both. Sometimes it feels like a never ending battle we can get a handle on.
  • Mandy Mnster — Paying off debt
  • Abby Freedman Perry — Saving. Debt keeps you going strong to work it off. Saving is a more nebulous goal and it’s easy to get off track. Whether you’re treating yourself or go a little crazy once you can afford home repairs/decor, it’s just harder to keep your nose to the grindstone.
  • DeLana Orr — Paying off debt- savings is automated & its fun watching the money grow.

Boy, doesn’t take much to get people fired up on Facebook, does it? ;) I love it… And as you see, it looks like we now officially have our unofficial answer! The winner of the “Debt vs. Savings hardness” debate is…. dum dum dum…. SAVINGS! Our peers give us the seal of approval.

Now it’s time to rest my fingers from all that copying and pasting, whew… y’all hooked us up good today, thanks for chiming in everyone! Let’s continue this discussion down in the comments, shall we?

Which do YOU think is harder for you? Savings or Paying Off Debt? No matter what your answer is, I do hope you’re still fighting the good fight either way. Your future self will thank you for it!

————-
{Photo by jonny goldstein}


{ 46 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jane Savers @ Solving The Money Puzzle May 28, 2013 at 6:09 am

Paying off debt is such a slow and painful process and it feels like I will never dig out of the hole. It is such a joy to watch my meagre savings gain 2 or 5 cents in interest and such a life sucking experience to track debt paying progress that is as much fun as stepping on a scale.

Reply

2 Free Money Minute May 28, 2013 at 6:10 am

I agree with you that it depends on the size of the goal as to which one is harder. Now, in my opinion, it is best to pay off the debt first. You will save on interest, reduce your risk and sleep better at night.

Reply

3 J. Money May 28, 2013 at 6:06 pm

I normally tend to agree w/ that too, all depending on the situation. Doesn’t make it easier to do all the time though :)

Reply

4 Lance @ Money Life and More May 28, 2013 at 7:32 am

As long as I have a goal, I’d say they’re probably about the same with a slight nudge to paying off debt being easier. Why? Because it oppresses us and we want to get rid of it so bad! It also costs us more money than I’d earn in interest but if savings interest rates were higher it might be different.

Saving for retirement is hardest, but that’s why I automate it. The goal is so far away, but at least I don’t have to consciously put the money away.

Reply

5 Pauline May 28, 2013 at 8:00 am

saving money. Once your throw money at your debt, it’s gone, whereas saved money is still accessible.

Reply

6 J. Money May 28, 2013 at 6:04 pm

Yup! Saving gives you mad options later.

Reply

7 Edward Antrobus May 28, 2013 at 8:04 am

I’d say saving. Especially general savings, as Eric pointed out. A targeted savings, you have something that you are working for. But saving $50k just to have it? Well, why? And so, why bother?

Reply

8 Shafi May 28, 2013 at 8:30 am

Whether one is harder than the other, either can be argued in favor or against. In my opinion, the sooner one gets rid of consumer debt, the better. The interest charged on debt sometimes becomes unbearable to the point that discourages many folks to do much about it. The high interest on debt has sucked the lifeblood out of people’s lives.

Reply

9 David Hunter May 28, 2013 at 8:36 am

My wife and I are debt free and it’s still harder to save money.

Some unexpected bill always comes up…. Like a car repair, house maintenance, stupid trip to the doctors, etc.

Even though we always save money each month it fluctuates from month to month because of these darn unexpected money robbers.

Reply

10 J. Money May 28, 2013 at 8:14 pm

you need to put a sign outside your wallet at night saying it’s equipped with an alarm system ;)

Reply

11 David Hunter May 28, 2013 at 11:28 pm

Hmmm… That’s not a bad idea! Haha

Reply

12 John S @ Frugal Rules May 28, 2013 at 9:12 am

I’d say that saving is the more difficult of the two. With debt, you have that number before you that you generally do all you can to knock it out. With saving, it’s (hopefully) a never ending process and unless you’re saving for something specific there is generally not a set in stone number you’re trying to reach.

Reply

13 Tina@My Shiny Pennies May 28, 2013 at 9:23 am

Psychologically, pay off debt is harder for me because I don’t feel like I’m getting anything in return. Sure, interest rates may suck, but it’s still nice to see the numbers slowly creep up rather than sending my money to a seemingly black hole.

Reply

14 Moon May 28, 2013 at 9:33 am

I would say saving is harder but right now we are doing both. We are saving up at least $1000 extra for our rental property downpayment in October while aggressively paying off student loans (which should be paid off in Oct as well) and a 15 year mortgage. We had a 30 year loan but since I hate debt so much, we refinanced to a 15 year last October to take advantage of the low rate and make sure more money goes towards principal.

Reply

15 Moon May 28, 2013 at 9:35 am

$1000 extra is PER MONTH since February. (Though I wish that was just a one time deal!) In fact we saved about $4000 extra in April since March is a 3 paycheck month.

Reply

16 J. Money May 28, 2013 at 8:15 pm

hot damn – y’all are on fire! way to go on that 15 year too, BIG fan of that.

Reply

17 Michelle May 28, 2013 at 9:40 am

I think paying off debt is easier. I haven’t had much of a problem with that because I love watching the numbers tick away.

Reply

18 Jeremy @ My Financial Road May 28, 2013 at 10:52 am

Booyah! Got myself a place up in the twitter section, hell yeah! But for real, you narrowed the feeling down to the letter by saying its easier to see an actual number over just some instruction (rainy day could be $500 or $5000) I’m liking this way of scientific research also ;)

Reply

19 Savvy Financial Latina May 28, 2013 at 10:56 am

I think saving is easier than paying off debt. Never really been a fan of debt, so having debt gives me a headache.

Reply

20 Manette @ Barbara Friedberg Personal Finance May 28, 2013 at 11:22 am

Speaking from experience, I think more people find it difficult to save money than pay debt. Besides, if more people find saving money more difficult, they will not get into debt and pay for them!

Reply

21 Jennifer M May 28, 2013 at 11:54 am

I do thinking saving money is harder since it is often unspecified. But I believe paying off debt is more important. In our family, besides the mortgage, we’ve just got two loans left to defeat by mid-September. We’ve already paid off around $50,000. Once those two final debts are cleared, we will have two less bills to pay and hundreds of more dollars a month to save/spend/share. Simplifying finances is a big deal to me and cutting out debts one by one, clears money for things you choose (Hawaiian vacations, parties, charity) instead of writing a check to someone else’s demands each month (Sallie Mae, Toyota, etc).

Reply

22 Lori May 28, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Saving is my challenge, because if I don’t move that money over to pay a bill, it looks like its ready to be spent! I got a lot out of your reasons you list, though, and I can definitely see that I, too, need to have that number. As soon as I get these debts paid off, I’m picking some bite sized goals for saving!

Reply

23 Christy May 28, 2013 at 12:41 pm

For me, it’s actually harder to pay off debt. I know that I need to save, both for retirement and for a cushion. I can see that money adding up, especially on my cushion, where I’m saving 20% of my take-home pay. With my debt, I have $36,759.63 left, and I know when it will be gone: within 5.5 years. I know how I’m paying it off, I know that if I keep plugging away, it’ll happen. When I have less debt, I’ll probably pay it off in bigger chunks. But for now, my savings goals are much more important. I’d rather have that 6 month cushion than less debt.

Reply

24 J. Money May 28, 2013 at 8:17 pm

I’ll agree with that too. Better to have a nice emergency fund and some debt than no debt but no savings. That will just get you back into more debt again when you least expect it :)

Reply

25 Christine @ ThePursuitofGreen May 28, 2013 at 1:17 pm

At the moment it’s harder to pay off debt than save. We have a car loan at 0% apr, which doesn’t give us much motivation to pay it off. We have a savings goal for a down payment on a house which we’re hoping to get at the end of this year, so that is more immediate!

Reply

26 Samantha May 28, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Up until a few years ago, I would say savings was more difficult. Now that my savings are automated and we’re working toward the gargantuan mortgage payoff, I will say paying off debt is harder. lol.

Paying off our other debts was hard, but when we hit Baby Step 3 (Dave Ramsey) we definitely had to switch gears from debt payoff to saving, and that was difficult! By in my own research among his followers, most people hit a slump during that time, trying to cram a few things in (vacation, home repairs) before getting back to the grindstone.

I’m sure next year when the house is paid off, I will be all “wait a second, paying off debt was easy because there was an end in sight, a finite number, and this saving for retirement is awful – as much as possible as soon as possible!”

Reply

27 J. Money May 28, 2013 at 8:18 pm

probably! pretty cool your house will be paid off next year regardless though, jeez… totally jealous :)

Reply

28 Alexa May 28, 2013 at 1:21 pm

For me, saving is a lot easier. Paying off debt is depressing to me until I get near the end. I like to watch my money grown instead of watching it fly out the window to debt and interest.

Reply

29 Emily @ evolvingPF May 28, 2013 at 1:44 pm

I definitely agree that having a target number is the primary thing that makes paying debt or saving motivating. However, I treated the little debt I had like my savings – just set an amount and pay it monthly on automation. I haven’t really tried to kill myself for either debt repayment or savings.

Reply

30 E.M. May 28, 2013 at 2:04 pm

I’m definitely an oddball in that I think paying debt off is harder. I only have my student loans, so it’s easy to focus on it, but parting with money has always been difficult for me. Saving has always been a priority, even before I had student loans, so it’s hard for me to get out of that “saving mode.”
I think the issue is that I kind of save out of fear – JUST in case something happens, and I need the money. I couldn’t fathom being below x amount in my bank account, because it’s a safety net for me. I watched a lot of emergencies pop up with my parents, and they ended up in debt because they didn’t have access to the money they needed at the time. I am working on this as I definitely no longer pay the min on my student loans, and plan to increase it when possible.

Reply

31 J. Money May 28, 2013 at 8:22 pm

I think there’s a lot of people like you out there – Including my wife :) It’s taking everything out of her to let go of thousands of dollars we’re about to put into our house even though it’s doing nothing in savings (and we have enough for a cushion). But then again all that conservativeness proves well down the road vs us more risky ones! So no shame in that.

Reply

32 Well Heeled Blog May 29, 2013 at 1:32 pm

NOT an oddball at all. I think paying off debt is definitely harder – saving money is moving forward on a “positive” action while paying off debt is only minimizing a “negative” action. It’s much easier for me to work up the motivation to save because I like seeing my goal number get bigger, instead of it getting back to zero.

Reply

33 Andrea @Take A Smart Step May 28, 2013 at 2:23 pm

I prefer to save, I find it much easier than paying off debt – good thing we only have a mortgage.

One thing that I have always done that helps make saving easy is to have a goal dollar amount that you are working for. Even if you have to adjust it over the years at least you have an on going target to stay motivated. For example right out of college I calculated how much I needed to save for retirement – both an overall number and how much a month I needed to save to get there. Now every year I redo these numbers so I have updated targets. So instead of I need $1 million to retire, it turns into I need to save $250 a month (just example numbers!) It is so much easier to stay motivated when you focus on the present day part of the long term equation!

Reply

34 Mike@WeOnlyDoThisOnce May 28, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Paying off debt often allows people to fall into a certain self-perpetuating cycle of hopelessness, while savings may not have the same degree of psychological toll.

Reply

35 Nick @ ayoungpro.com May 28, 2013 at 4:31 pm

My opinion is expressed above, but I’ll reiterate that I think saving is harder!

Reply

36 Slackerjo May 28, 2013 at 6:53 pm

I could not come up with an answer to your question so I asked myself the question “What is more satisfying? Paying off debt or saving?”

I decided saving because saving means freedom and paying off debt (in my case) means un-doing something dumb.

Reply

37 J. Money May 28, 2013 at 8:23 pm

I like your question a lot too :) Though I’d probably pick paying off debt cuz it feels like an accomplishment with a finite ending vs savings. I guess I’m just hung up on def. numbers!

Reply

38 Yana May 28, 2013 at 7:24 pm

It’s probably harder to pay off debt, as I don’t want to do that and therefore don’t take on debt. I want to save money, and in fact, if I do a thing like buy a car outright, I make payments to myself after the fact. I’m my own bank and creditor :P But if I had debt that I intended to pay off, it isn’t a matter of harder or easier – I would pay the debt off, because it is a costly liability. And as someone else said, it cancels out savings.

Reply

39 J. Money May 30, 2013 at 9:48 am

“I’m my own bank and creditor” – haha, that is awesome.

Reply

40 UpstateTeacherLady May 28, 2013 at 8:11 pm

For me it is paying down debt. I know it is a specific number, and preferably I would want that number to be zero, but I work in a school district where the elementary and middle schools have made the list to have student loans forgiven for multiple years. My high school building, where I work, has never made the list once…apparently, we somehow perform miracles. I’ve been saving like crazy for the past two years and telling myself that if we didn’t make the list this year I would use what I had been saving to get my next degee in education, my C.A.S., to signifigantly decrease my loan. Well, we didn’t make it again. I literally just paid the government a loan payment equivalent to a year of my rent. For being 25, that was hard to watch the money go out of my bank account.

Reply

41 J. Money May 30, 2013 at 9:49 am

Ouch! I bet… Very responsible of you to tackle though! :)

Reply

42 thepotatohead May 28, 2013 at 10:01 pm

I’d say paying off debt is easier. With debt once you hit enter on the pc or throw the check in the mail, you can’t go spend that money anymore. It’s going straight towards the debt. At least for me if I see my bank account sitting flush with cash, there will always be that temptation to spend it. Best to be out of sight out of mind for me.

Reply

43 Jacob Erickson May 28, 2013 at 10:48 pm

I have to agree with you, I’d be much more motivated to pay off an $800 car bill instead of saving for a rainy day. That being said, I don’t really care which one I’m working on as long as it’s getting me closer to my goals. I’m a huge goal person, so these are what normally motivate me.

Reply

44 J. Money May 30, 2013 at 9:52 am

“I don’t really care which one I’m working on as long as it’s getting me closer to my goals” – yup! And there are always a few ways to get there too, which is nice. We get to work on the ones that make the most sense and can then change it up when another one starts to more – it’s great.

Reply

45 Ms. S May 29, 2013 at 2:05 pm

Boy am I late to this party, but I’ll comment anyway. :-)
Saving is easier for me. I get pissed at myself with every payment I make to my student loans. I get furious. LOL. I guess that anger is fueling me to me to pay it off very quickly. Saving’s easy for me because I get to see my account grow and I feel a sense of stability.

I guess it depends on the kind of debt also because I don’t think I’d feel angry at debt if I had a mortgage.? Don’t know. I’ll update my comment when I buy a house. :-)

Reply

46 J. Money May 30, 2013 at 9:51 am

if you’re anything like me it’ll upset you even MORE, haha… I hate my mortgage debt and home ownership altogether at this point – stresses me out. But I’ve also never lived in one place more than a handful of years so I should have known better before trying to be “responsible” and buy a house. Lesson learned :)

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: