Repay debts or save?

How to protect and max your cash

repay debts or save

Those with debts AND savings are seriously overspending but the solution is simple. Pay the debts off, possibly even including your mortgage, before you save. Forget the old 'must have an emergency savings fund' logic as getting rid of debts beats that too.

In this guide

Yes, pay off debts with savings...

We can almost hear the dismay at this suggestion: "What? All we hear about is Britons don't save enough and, here I am, trying to do it and you say don't! What are you talking about man?" So let us explain the basic reasoning straightaway...

It's that simple. Debts usually cost more than savings earn. Cancel them out and you're better off.

What about tax?

Savings interest can also be hit by tax too. Though this is much less of an issue than it used to be, as since 6 April 2016, the personal savings allowance means MOST people don't pay tax on savings. Though if you earn a lot of interest you may do. If so, factor that in – it makes paying off your debts even more attractive.

Banks love us to save and have debts

Put most simply, when you save money you're actually lending your cash to the bank for it to lend on to other people. The difference between the rate at which it borrows money from you (the savings rate) and the rate it charges others (the borrowing rate) is its profit. Therefore, on the whole, it'll always cost more to borrow than you can earn by saving.

This is why we find it deeply frustrating that many people have both borrowings and savings at the same time, often with the same bank. Essentially it is lending you back the money you lent it, except charging you much more. 

Think about this, it's actually quite shocking. I (Martin) once made a speech to the Building Society Association conference, which was puffing out its chest at how much better than banks they were.

So I asked how many of their savings managers' salaries were based on the value of savings they brought in. Many were. Then I questioned how many got the branch staff to ask people opening savings accounts if they had debts. Not one!

The exceptions to the rule

The rule is based on the fact that the cost of debt is usually much higher than the benefit gained from savings. Therefore your pocket gains more by getting rid of the debt than starting to save. The exceptions are in the few occasions when debts are cheaper than savings, or cost so much to pay off that there's no point:

  • The penalty exception. If you're locked into the debt, so that paying it off incurs a penalty, as with some loans or mortgages, then leave the cash sitting in a savings account until the penalty's small enough that it doesn't matter.

    More details on loan lock-ins are in the Cut the Cost of Existing Loans guide.

  • The interest-free / very cheap debt exception. Debts cost. Yet those who carefully and conscientiously manage their debts so they're constantly interest-free should follow the opposite logic.

    If the interest rate on your debt is less than the amount your savings earn after tax then, providing you're financially disciplined, you can profit from building up savings and keep the debts. In effect, you're being paid on money lent to you by the banks for nothing.

    There are a number of products where this is possible: introductory 0% credit card offers (see Best Balance Transfers and Purchase Cards), 0% overdrafts (see Best Bank AccountsStudent Account and Graduate Account articles) and Student Loans (see Should I pay off my student loan?).

Should you have an emergency fund?

Emotionally, many will find what I'm about to say difficult to deal with. The idea of having some cash in a savings pot feels safe, especially as traditional budgeting logic berates us to always have an ‘emergency cash fund'.

I disagree. It's a must-do aim for the debt-free, but for anyone with expensive debts – particularly on credit cards – it's silly.

The right thing to do is still pay off your debts with savings, including your emergency fund. Yet don't cut up your credit cards, it's important to keep the credit available in case of a substantial emergency (and substantial means just that, your roof falls in or you can't feed the kids; not a new plasma TV).

A practical example: Johnny Comelately

Johnny Comelately currently has £5,000 saved up, earning 1% interest, in case of emergency, yet he also has £5,000 on credit cards at 18%. While his savings are earning him £50 a year, his debts cost £900. Overall, he is paying out £850 a year.

Now compare what happens if he pays off his debts with his savings, with not doing so:

Situation A: No emergency happens

No change. Keeping both debts and savings costs Johnny £850 a year.

Pay off debts with savings. Johnny now neither earns nor pays any interest, thus is relatively £850 a year better off, and all the new cash he puts aside can go towards genuinely saving.

Situation B: After a year he has to pay £5,000 for an emergency roof fix

No change. Johnny uses the savings for the emergency. This leaves him with no savings and £5,000 of credit card debt at 18%.

Pay off debts with savings. As Johnny has no savings, he has to borrow the £5,000 on his credit cards. This leaves him with no savings and £5,000 debt on his credit card at 18%.

In other words, Johnny is in exactly the same position in situation B, regardless of what he does. Yet before the emergency he was £850 a year better off by paying off his debts with his savings.

So overall, whether an emergency happens or not, the best result is to pay off your debts with your savings. The only time to beware of this is if you're not assured of being able to reborrow the cash.

Usually with credit cards it's fine, as they're a readily available source of credit, but if your debt is a personal loan, there's no guarantee you will be able to get another – in which case an emergency fund is sensible.

The disciplined exception

Those making a concerted effort to repay serious debts may find the idea of reusing credit cards a real danger. Yet while it isn't a sensible strategy to have an emergency fund, as there's no guarantee you'll ever need it, there is some justification for making small savings provisions for specific future events.

For example, saving a small amount each month towards Christmas (see budgeting article), for those who can't trust themselves to stick to the limit on credit cards, is a sensible personal financial strategy. Yet keep it to limited amounts of cash.

Should you pay off your mortgage with savings?

Many people don't think of their mortgage as a debt, but of course it is. However, the key difference is mortgages are usually at a much cheaper rate and less flexible.

In this case the difference between debt and savings is much smaller, but you're still better off using the savings to clear your mortgage debt. And remember the above assumes you're with a top savings account, which sadly most people aren't.

Yet there are a number of exceptions and hurdles to this, for full details, including a specially designed calculator, read the Should I pay off my mortgage? guide.

Pay off the most expensive debts first

Sadly, many people have much more debt than savings. So even if you use all your cash to pay them off, you'll still have debts left. Therefore, it's important you prioritise using your savings to get rid of the most expensive debts.

Before you do this, check to see if you can lower any of your debts' interest rates.

Once your debts are as cheap as they can be, list where they are and the amount of debt that you have. Then use your savings (or spare cash) to pay off the most costly debts first. All this done together should massively reduce your costs.