Ignore math on 401(k) contributions

November 20, 2011 

Dear Dave,

Should I continue to contribute to my 401(k) at work up to the match if I'm still trying to get out of debt?

- Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

Nope! I know, you probably think I've lost my mind on this one. Yeah, I know how important it is to take the match in a situation like that. In fact, it still kind of irks me to have to say these kinds of things. I'm a math nerd, so I really don't like the whole idea of it very much.

But I've learned a few things over the years. One of those things is that personal finance is 80 percent behavior and only about 20 percent head knowledge. And in the short term, the power of passionately focusing and sacrificing deeply to attack your debt will supersede the mathematics involved where your company match is concerned. In other words, if you stop saving temporarily for a year or two, and in that time wipe out your debts, the power you'll gain in being free from those debts will be more beneficial to you than a couple of years of your company match.

I would never tell you to stop investing or doing the company match for 10 years or anything silly like that. But if you stop for just a little while and clean up your mess, then go back to investing for retirement, you'll reap so many more rewards down the road. Not only will you have permanently changed your behavior, but you'll also be able to invest even more for retirement and other things.

- Dave

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