Personal finance experts love to argue about the best approach to shrinking your debt: paying off loans with the biggest balance first vs. tackling your highest-interest debt. This debate can get as heated as a Thanksgiving dinner where your relatives debate politics, religion or the winner on Dancing With The Stars.
Now comes new research that proves what the smart financial advisors have said all along: the best method is one you can stick with until you're debt-free.
The debate comes down to two mindsets, sort of like men being from Mars and women hailing from Venus. Rationalists claim the best way to pay off debts is to target extra cash at your highest-interest rate debt first, because that lowers your total interest payments and means you pay the least amount to get out of debt. Let's call that the "debt highball" approach.
The flip side, whose proponents include anti-debt guru Dave Ramsey, emphasizes motivation, counseling you to pay off your smallest debt balances first. This camp touts the emotional satisfaction that comes from seeing a balance of $0.00 on your Visa, and holds that the emotional boost keeps you motivated to pay off other debts. This is the "debt snowball" method. As millennial money expert Stefanie O'Connell puts it, "The argument for the debt snowball is that you will…start building momentum and it's more of this psychological boost to finishing your debt repayment journey."
Who's right? A new study says that they both are.
"The increased motivational benefits of small victories may make it beneficial to pay off debts from smallest to largest in some cases, ignoring interest rates," according to Alexander Brown and Joanna Lahey of Texas A&M University, in a research paper coming from the Journal of Marketing Research.
In other words, what works is what works FOR YOU. Imagine if John Lennon had written Whatever Gets You thru the Night as Whatever Gets You out of Debt. Whatever that is, this research suggests, "it's alright, it's alright."
If you are still struggling over what method to adopt, consider this: when you do the math, it may not add up to all that much. Imagine that you have debt on three credit cards: One charging 18.9 percent on a $5,000 balance; another at 15.9 percent on a $3,000 balance; and the third with a rate of 11.9 percent on $2,000. Paying the minimum means that you will spend more than 8 years and $17,600 on interest to get all those balances to zero.
Now let's say you comb through your budget and find you have $50 you can throw at one of those card balances each month. Where should it go? The rational camp would insist on targeting your highest-rate card. And they would be right — you would pay it all off in less than five years and cut your interest payments by more than $3,100.
Targeting your smallest balance first would take an additional three months, and save you nearly $2,600 in interest, for a total of $541 less.
I am not one to sneeze at saving more than $500, but you will only save that money if you can stick to your debt-reduction plan. If you get discouraged and quit, you will lose almost all of that time and money.
The thing to focus on here is the fact that, under either method, you are cutting your repayment time by more than half and saving thousands of dollars. Moreover, whenever your debt is paid off, you have another $3,000 a year to put toward your own financial priorities and not your debt — and that is your real goal.
If you keep that in mind, it does not matter which approach you take. If getting to zero on one account and posting that paid off statement on the refrigerator keeps you going, do it. Whether it is highball or snowball, they both beat no ball.
If you want to settle outstanding debts for less than what you owe, try our debt settlement tool.