Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.
By Donna Rosato
October 28, 2014

Q: My wife is 62 and I am 65. She has a small pension of $21,000 and can take it as a lump sum or an annuity of $154 a month. We also have a credit card with $17,000 at 8% and two car loans of $17,000 at 8%. Should we use the money to pay off debt or roll it into an IRA? – Joe Skovira, Cheshire, Conn.

A: Choosing the right way to handle a pension payout is critical to your retirement success. It’s all too tempting to use that money to pay off debts, when your other sources of cash run short. But raiding your pension could be a mistake. “You should pay off the debt but don’t sacrifice the pension to do it,” says Rich Paul, a certified financial planner and president of Richard W. Paul & Associates.

Even though the pension income is small, that $154 monthly check adds up $1,800 a year, or a 9% payout. It would be hard to generate that consistent income on your own in an IRA. “Those are guaranteed dollars that you’ll receive for the rest of your life—you can’t get that kind of return with conservative investments,” says Paul.

There are also taxes to consider. If you take the pension as a lump sum, and don’t roll it over into an IRA, you’ll likely owe capital gains or income taxes. Moreover, the income from that lump sum might push you into a higher tax bracket, further eroding its value.

As for your debts, they’re clearly a drain on your cash flow. So look for ways to free up cash to pay off those bills by cutting your spending. For strategies on getting on top of that debt, see here and here.

It also makes sense to prioritize your credit card debt over the car loans, says Paul. That way, if you ever need extra cash, you’ll have a bigger credit line to tap. You could even use the $154 to step up payments on the credit card.

“It all comes down to cash flow. You’ll feel a lot more comfortable in retirement with more guaranteed income and less debt,” says Paul.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

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