Today I would like to spend some time answering a reader. Nicole asks, “which debt should I pay off first?” This is a great question and one many of us struggle with as we start to dig ourselves out of debt and feel overwhelmed at the prospect.
The start of my own out-of-debt journey
As I've discussed before, my own journey to rid myself of $40k worth of debt started almost 10 years ago this year. Deep in debt and at a low point in my life – I finally wised up and began the slow 5-year “excavation” process.
My big influences at the time were some very thrifty roommates, supportive family and the book, The Total Money Makeover, by Dave Ramsey (which we have referenced on more than one occasion here).
One of the very first things I did was to make a note of everything that I owed. After that, I created a very simplistic budget in Word so that I could see where my money was going and to give it a place to go. Writing down where your money is going and what you are spending it on is a great first step exercise for those looking to get rid of debt. In my case, it helped me “wake up” to what I was doing with my finances.
The next step was to decide which debt to tackle first.
The two schools of thought on which debt to pay first
I just want to mention the two views on paying down debt and then I'll tell you which worked for me (and I would recommend).
- Smallest balance first. One of the first lessons I learned from Dave Ramsey was that our finances are often tied into our emotions (or the heart) vs. logic (the brain). To deal with our emotional self, Ramsey (and others) recommend paying off your smallest debt first. The idea behind this is to build some confidence and encouragement as you just start out. Crossing off balances on your list will give you an emotional boost that will prove to be invaluable on your journey. After the smallest balance is paid off, you move on to the next smallest and so-on. This is also where you can apply a debt snowball too – where you pay off the smallest balance and then apply what you were paying to that balance to the next smallest, and so on. It's a good way to expedite your debt-payoff (I explain this with more detail in the preceding link).
- The balance with the most interest. This method is the most logical: pay off the debt with the highest interest rate so you won't be paying more money in “stupid tax” (interest) than you have to. Quite simply – you would just jot down all your debts, and then list them by greatest interest rate to the least. And then start knocking off the highest rate debt. This approach can work – and is probably more geared toward those who spend more time in their head than in their heart.
If I had to pick between the two, I would encourage you to start by paying off your smallest balance first. Many of us did not get into debt because we failed to add or subtract wrong but rather, made some poor emotional decisions with our money. This was the case with me. And because of this – appealing to our emotional self is important when we are getting control of our finances again.
What has worked for you in your out-of-debt journey's? Any other advice for Nicole?