Use lump-sum pension to pay credit card?

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Dear Debt Adviser,
I have more than $30,000 in credit card debt, and I recently changed jobs. In addition to a large 401(k) (it is 22 years’ worth of contributions) that I rolled over to my new employer, I have a lump-sum pension from my former employer. Should I use the lump-sum pension to pay off my high-interest credit card debt?
— Derek

Dear Derek,
It sounds as if you have a good start on your retirement savings. But the reality is that most people aren’t saving nearly enough for what they will realistically need. Why is that? Because they don’t really understand what it will take to fund retirement for 20 or 30 years. On the other hand, being in debt for any longer than necessary, and paying exorbitant interest rates, makes no sense. The answer to your question lies in between these two competing uses for your windfall.

With that in mind, my recommendation is to not use $30,000 of your lump-sum pension to pay off your credit card debt. I suggest that you first pledge to stop adding new credit card debt. Next, I suggest you use part of the money (don’t forget tax withholding) to pay down your credit card debt to the point where you can manage to pay it off completely over the next 12 months out of your cash flow. The remainder of your lump-sum distribution should go into your retirement account.

The reason I want you to pay off the final portion of your debt in a year is to give you a low-risk way to successfully manage your debt without just sloughing it off and learning nothing. You may think that after 22 years of building a 401(k) you don’t need any new lessons in saving and spending. But having $30,000 on your cards tells me you may still have some things to learn. Having to make regular payments out of your pay will give you the opportunity to get used to a financial discipline that will serve you well once you pay down your cards and begin to save for retirement in earnest. You may need to make some temporary sacrifices in other spending areas to make this pay-down plan work. But you will save money in interest charges and hopefully make some needed changes to how you spend.

Before you do anything, I would like to see you do some in-depth planning for your financial future. If you don’t already work with a financial planner, now is the perfect time to interview a few and pick a good one. You can find a Certified Financial Planner professional using Bankrate’s search tool, or you could ask for referrals from your trusted friends and colleagues. Expect more than stock and bond picks from a true professional. A good financial planner will begin by getting to know you and helping you set multiple financial goals.

I would also encourage you to consider building up a savings account with 12 months’ of living expenses. This savings cushion should help you avoid accumulating large, problematic credit card debt in the future. You certainly don’t want to be dealing with credit card debt payments when you enter into your retirement years.

Good luck!

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