Want to retire early? Here's how to pay off debts fast — and build wealth

Financial guru Dave Ramsey shares his tips and tricks on how to retire early and grow the greatest wealth you can — even on an average income.
Think you can't pay off your debts and start saving money? Think again, says Dave Ramsey.
Think you can't pay off your debts and start saving money? Think again, says Dave Ramsey.Getty Images

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By Callie Patteson

Golf, fishing, travel and relaxation — it's a retirement many look forward to. But with growing personal debt and the average retirement age slowly rising, some might think it is far out of reach. Radio host and personal finance expert Dave Ramsey talked to TODAY and told us it's not; and in fact, it can come sooner than you think.

To Ramsey, every person has the ability to get out of debt and retire early; it all depends on how serious they take the task.

"I hear people say, 'People like me can't.' Well, you can, whoever you are," Dave Ramsey told TODAY.Ramsey Solutions

Ramsey started his company, Ramsey Solutions, in 1992 "to counsel folks hurting from the results of financial stress," according to his website. In addition to writing six bestsellers listed on The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Publishers Weekly lists, he has created a "7 Baby Steps" plan on how to take control of your money and build wealth.

Baby Step No. 1: Create a baby emergency fund

The first thing to do, Ramsey says, is to stop all investments. "You stop all savings and you put $1,000 aside as your starter emergency fund," he told TODAY.

Not investing in a 401(k) or Roth IRA might sound counterintuitive to retiring early, but Ramsey says that the shortest path to wealth is to do whatever it takes to get rid of any debt you have.

"You can't borrow your way into wealth — no one does it," he said. "You have to save your way into wealth."

Before you start saving, Ramsey believes you must be in a place where you can save as much as you can. To do that, you have to get rid of debt. That leads to the next step.

Baby Step No. 2: Get out of debt

In this second step, Ramsey says to focus on all debt but the house — that will come later. He describes the process of paying these debts as a snowball.

"Pay your debts smallest to largest," he said. "Pay minimum payments on everything but the little one. Attack the little one with a vengeance and when that is gone, you go down the list."

Every time you are able to clear up a debt, any money you used for it can go toward another debt, and another debt, and another until they are all gone.

Ramsey Solutions has seen most families in the last 30 years that follow the snowball pattern become debt-free in 18-24 months (not counting any house payments).

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Baby Step No. 3: Establish a fully funded emergency fund

By this stage, you have no other debt payments aside from a mortgage, if you have one. How freeing does that sound? There should now be a lot more room in your budget for a fully funded emergency fund. Ramsey advises that you have three to six months' worth of expenses in your "grandma rainy day fund".

The next three baby steps should all be done simultaneously. But Ramsey emphasizes you still must do them in order.

Baby Step No. 4: Welcome back investments

If you stopped your 401(k), Roth IRA or haven't started them at all, here is where you get back to investing.

"Fifteen percent of your household income is going into retirement," Ramsey said. "That will make the typical family a millionaire in 14 years."

With a combined increasing income and the subsequent 15% savings also increasing nominally — not to mention that around 75% of people get an employer match with their 401(k) — you and your family could be looking at some serious money.

And even if you don't earn a six-figure salary, Ramsey's approach takes into account the average family that makes $60,000 a year: If that family invests 15% of their income every year, they are already investing more into retirement than the typical family that makes $120,000 a year.

Baby Step No. 5: Save for your children's college fund

Depending on if you have children and how old they are, this step focuses on saving for college. Because there are so many possibilities here, there is no set way to save, according to Ramsey. On his website, he suggests families use an education savings account or a 529 college savings account.

Baby Step No. 6: Pay off your home

Remember when we paid off everything but the house? Now it's time to turn to that. You now have every other debt paid off, an emergency fund set aside and money for your children's education. Ramsey found that if the average family has followed these steps and throws everything they can at their house, they can pay off their house in seven years.

But depending on your situation or what the economy looks like in terms of investing, you may want to approach paying off a mortgage differently, potentially not as aggressively.

Baby Step No. 7: Build wealth

The final step is fairly simple: Build wealth and be generous. You're debt-free, have emergency and college funds set aside and can, therefore, max out payments for retirement and good mutual investment funds.

"There is really nothing to do but enjoy it, build more wealth and give it," Ramsey said.

How to get started

If you're still wondering if you can invest the full 15% to retirement, Ramsey is adamant.

"If you have a normal house payment ratio in your budget or a normal rent ratio in your budget," he said, "plus the 15%, plus food, lights and water — you'd have to be below the poverty level for that formula not to work mathematically."

What may be holding you back are student loans or car payments. If that is the case, go back to the first two baby steps and stop investing until you get rid of that debt.

The 7 Baby Steps might not work for every single person, but if you want to get rid of your debt and be able to put as much money toward retirement as possible, Ramsey believes you should follow the steps.

To get started, you can take an assessment here. After plugging in a few numbers and information, the site will tell you which baby step you are on and what you should work at next.

"I hear people say, 'People like me can't.' Well, you can, whoever you are," Ramsey emphasized. "You can do this. We meet people who have overcome unbelievable odds and it's easier for some than others but you can do this! There is no reason for you to struggle with money for the rest of your life."