If you’re drowning in debt, one of the worst things you can do is to listen to conventional wisdom – particularly from anyone who’s asking you for money. Think about it: Their incentive isn’t to get you out of debt, it’s to get themselves rich. Between Dave Ramsey, Suze Orman and that angry guy who manipulates stock markets, you’re left with seemingly simple Texas two-step plans that are either banal or outright wrong. If you’re looking to get debt-free, it’s important to take the personalities out of personal finance.
What’s wrong with the Debt Snowball?
The famed Dave Ramsey advocates the “snowball” theory of debt relief: after making the minimum payments, work towards paying off your smallest debt first, then gradually move up to your largest. He tells you to ignore the interest rate on your debts, and instead to focus on the momentum-granting psychological satisfaction that comes with paying off your debt. But there are two problems with this: If your highest-interest debt is also your largest, you’ll end up paying a lot more in interest.
If all your debts are large, you won’t get a psychological benefit. Ramsey says that you’ll be motivated to stick with your savings if you have the satisfaction of closing accounts – and that motivation is worth paying more interest for. By that logic, if you only have one credit card but you’ve racked up $10,000 on it, your best way to pay it off is to open another credit card, run up a $200 debt and pay it off before tackling the bigger debt.
Here’s an illustration of how the “debt snowball” method can cost you. You have three debts and $500 a month with which to pay them off:
|Loan Type||Interest Rate||Balance||Minimum Payment|
If you use Dave Ramsey’s method, you’ll be debt-free in 101 months – about eight and a half years. You’ll pay out $22,613 in interest. That’s pretty substantial, almost equal to the amount you borrowed.
Instead, if you do the mathematically sound method – paying off your highest-interest debt first – you’ll be debt-free in 86 months, just over seven years, and you’ll pay a total of $14,650 in interest.
In this (admittedly simplistic) example, following Ramsey’s advice would increase the amount of interest you pay by over $7,000. That’s a pretty steep financial penalty.
Now, let’s look at problem #2: if motivation’s what you’re after, what happens if it takes a while to pay off your debt? In this scenario, you’d close your first account – the auto loan – in 18 months. Psychologists estimate that habits take anywhere from 21 to 66 days to form. If you can pay off a balance in three months, you might get some benefit from the debt snowball’s boost. But if you pass the 66-day threshold, saving and paying off your debt become ingrained – your habits form their own momentum. You’re paying extra interest for no added gain.
Better ways to stay motivated and get debt-free
Instead of banking on a dubious motivator, follow three steps to get rid of debt quickly and in the most cost-effective way possible.
1. Try to lower your rates
Negotiate your interest rate with credit card lenders by threatening to leave for a better interest rate. Tell them,
“I’d love to keep this account with you, but I need lower rates, and I can get an interest rate of 7% at a credit union. What is the lowest APR you’ll give to move debts from other cards?”
If they don’t lower your rate, follow through: transfer your balance to another credit card. Choose one with a 0% APR period, preferably one that doesn’t charge an upfront balance transfer fee. Minimizing the amount you have to pay is the most pain-free method of debt reduction.
Consider consolidating your student loans to see if you can get a lower rate, or if you can move from a variable-rate loan to a fixed-rate one. Since interest rates are at rock bottom right now, a fixed-rate loan might save you money in the long run. Our student loan calculator helps you weigh consolidation options.
Finally, think about refinancing your mortgage. Interest rates are particularly low these days, making it potentially advantageous to do so. However, keep in mind the costs associated with refinancing, including potential property tax increases if your home is reassessed.
2. Gamify for free
Dave Ramsey advocates motivation at a price, seeking the psychological boost no matter the financial cost. But there are other, free ways to motivate yourself. The world is full of apps and programs that bring gamification and social support to your personal finances. A few examples:
- StickK lets you set a goal, put your money where your mouth is, assign a referee and get support from your friends. It’s used for losing weight, quitting smoking and – you guessed it – getting rid of debt.
- SaveUp is specifically related to personal finance, incentivizing you to save rather than spend. You link your bank accounts to your SaveUp profile, and if you’re diligent about paying down your debts, you’ll earn rewards and be entered into drawings for money, vacations, cars and more.
- Payoff also rewards you for meeting your financial goals. You set milestones, share them with friends, and earn rewards for working towards them.
Not only can you avoid spending more money in the name of motivation, but you can actually earn some back.
3. Make one decision, then don’t make any more
The easiest way to stick to your debt payoff plan, however, is to take yourself out of the equation. Figure out how much you can realistically put toward paying down your debts. Got the number? Great. Set up an automatic transfer between your checking account and a savings account for exactly that amount, or have that amount direct-deposited from your paycheck into a savings account. Then, use all the money in the savings account to pay off your debt. Depending on the type of loan, you might be able to automate that transfer too. Out of sight, out of mind: If you don’t see the extra money to begin with, you won’t spend it. Ramsey points out, with some truth, that we can be our own worst enemies when it comes to long-term goals like becoming debt-free. To counter that, make the decision to set up automated transfers so you can’t sabotage yourself later on.