February 11, 2014

Dealing with Debt

Credit: Stuart Miles
One of the most common questions I receive is about paying down debt. If you only have one debt, be it a student loan, a car loan, or a home loan, it’s pretty easy: make the monthly payments and pay a little extra when you can until you don’t owe any more. Paying off that loan will remove a recurring, fixed expense from your monthly cash flow, eliminate your interest expense, and free up some more cash for you to save or invest. However, if you have multiple debts, things can get a little more interesting…

Let’s say you have a car loan for $15,000 at a 4.5% interest rate and a $200,000 mortgage at 4.75%. What should you do? Any financial advisor with any sense at all would encourage you to make the minimum payments on both of your personal liabilities at the very least, but if you ask some of the great financial minds out there which debt you should focus on beyond your minimum payments should you have a little extra cash lying around, you would probably start hearing conflicting answers. What I mean, is that from a longer-term point of view, you should always attack the debt with the higher (or highest) interest rate to maximize your net worth, but from a shorter-term point of view, you should probably go ahead and pay off the smaller (or smallest) debt to lower your fixed expenses a little bit and take some pressure off your cash flow. Every case is different, but if the interest rates of the two debts you are trying to decide between paying more towards are very close AND the amount owed on one of them is significantly smaller than the other one, I’d usually recommend you go ahead and eliminate the smaller debt. The interest rate savings you are giving up are most likely minimal compared to the satisfaction you will feel and progress you will see by eliminating a debt.

Credit card debt is often another matter entirely. Let’s say you have six credit cards with balances on them that you can’t pay off at the end of the month. What do you do? First, read this blog more often, and unless you find yourself in a really, really bad situation, don’t ever rack up a credit card bill you can’t completely pay off at the end of the month! Just say no! Seriously though, what should you do? I’d get a sheet of notebook paper and write down the name of each credit card, the balance you have worked up, the interest rate you will be charged, the minimum payment due, and the maximum credit limit of each card. Make a nice little chart if you like. Either way, I’d advise you to make minimum payments on all of them and then go after whichever credit card has the highest interest rate regardless of the balance you owe. Credit card interest rates have teeth and fangs, so when we’re talking 15% to 25% interest rates or higher, you should really focus on stopping the “interest rate bleeding” as quickly as you can. One other thing probably worth mentioning is that if you have some credit left on some of the cards with lower interest rates, you could potentially take advantage of that remaining credit and try to pay down (or pay off) some of the cards with higher interest rates if your particular credit card(s) will allow you to do so. It’s a creative approach, and you’d need to be careful, but it could work and save you some interest. If you actually resort to this tactic, don’t just pat yourself on the back: go get a pair of scissors and cut that paid-off credit card down its back!

Everyone with debt is in a different financial position with different cash flows and different assets at their disposal, so my proposed debt reduction strategy is not always the same. Whatever path I advise, or more importantly, whatever path you choose to take, I encourage you to take that “freed-up” cash you have every time you pay off a debt and go ahead and put it towards paying down your next debt. This practice is often referred to as a “snowball,” and if you hold true to this strategy, you can really pick up some momentum towards becoming debt-free. 

Almost everyone has debt or has had debt. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if I can help you come up with a plan tailored to deal with your debt.


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