The real skinny on debt elimination

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

When it comes to strategies for accelerating the paying off of unsecured debt, I’ve seen a bunch of them.  Everything from straight-forward approaches based on math to “snowball” strategies that focus on the emotional gains that can be made by lower balances, depending on where you look.

So I figured it was time to clarify and summarize.

When we’re talking about debt elimination, we are referring primarily to unsecured debt.  Sure, a strategy for paying off all your bills, including your mortgage, has merit in the big scheme of things… but there is such a thing as “good debt.”  And in most cases, your mortgage qualifies as good debt.

When you have a large balance on a credit card, you’re at a distinct disadvantage because the rates, which can be as high at 27%, put you in the unenviable position of paying more in interest than you are towards the debt itself.  For instance, if you owe $2,000 on a credit card at 20% interest, the total interest for a year (assuming no added charges) would be $400.  That figure, divided by 12, would come out to about $33 per month in interest.

So assuming your credit card company requires a $50 minimum monthly payment, at the start of the aforementioned 12 months your payment would have $33 going to interest – pure profit for the credit card company – and only $17 toward reducing your debt.  So entering Month No. 2, your balance owed would not be $1,950 (after you paid $50 toward the $2,000 original balance) but instead would be $1,983.  If you were to attempt to pay off this account solely by making the minimum payment every month, you would need about 5 1/2 years and would fork over more than $3,300 for the right to borrow $2K – a 65% over-payment strictly because of interest.

Paying that way makes no sense, unless you prefer to grossly overpay for things, in which case I just put my 16-year-old Honda with 150K miles up for sale.  Fifteen grand, and it’s all yours.

No wonder Capital One can afford to pay Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Garner to hawk their cards.

Seriously, the need to pay off this debt is… well… serious.  So how best to do it?

If you have just one debt, say, the card balance just described above, you simply add every available extra dollar you can muster to that $50 payment – because every dollar you add will go directly toward the balance –  and pay the thing off much more quickly. Simple enough.

But what if you’re like most debt-challenged folks – with six different debts, ranging from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, each with unique APRs and minimum payments due.  What then?

Unlike many so-called finance experts, I will level with you and explain here that there is more than one responsible answer to this question.  But none are overly complicated.  And NONE require the help of a credit counseling service. You can do this completely on your own… trust me.  I’ve done it, long before I became the all-knowing wizard I am today (kidding, of course).

Here is the process, broken down into manageable steps:

1. List all your debts with the following information:  Creditor/phone number/account number, balance owed, minimum payment due, the day each month that the minimum payment is due, interest rate.

2. For any creditors who are charging you more than 12% interest, call their customer service departments and request a drop in your rate.  Explain that you have multiple debts, are making a concerted effort to reduce/eliminate your debt, and that their understanding and assistance would be appreciated. Point out (if it’s true) that you’ve made your payments on time and kept your account in good standing.  If the first rep you speak with indicates that he/she cannot help you, ask to speak to a supervisor.  If after speaking to management, you cannot get them to agree to a reduced rate, inform them that you will be transferring the balance to another card immediately and will never again use their card or services.  Be polite, but firm in letting them know that there is plenty of competition out there who will appreciate your business at a more competitive rate.  That often is the kicker to getting the company to agree to help.  And remember, even a 2% reduction in rate is better than nothing.  Don’t be greedy – just ask that they reduce it as much as possible. (some companies have been known to eliminate interest altogether for debtors in real trouble, but that is the exception rather than a rule).

3. Figure a year’s worth of interest on each debt by multiplying the balance owed and the interest rate.  Then take that figure and divide it into the minimum monthly payment amount.  Jot down the percentage you get. Why are we doing this?  Because we want to know which minimum payments give you the biggest bang for your buck each month, regardless of balance.

4. Now do some rankings – three lists, to be exact.  On List #1, rank your debts from lowest balances to highest.  On List #2, rank your debts from highest APR to lowest, and on List #3, rank the percentages you figured in No. 3 above in order from highest percentage going toward interest to lowest.

5. Now scan the three lists you just created.  Is there a creditor that appears to rank near the top on all three lists?  If so, that will be your first priority debt.  If it appears that two or more creditors are scattered among the top with no clear “winner,” you can either create a quick points system to rank them separately (only if you’re a numbers nut like me), or you can just continue reading here…

6. You now have a decision to make – how are you going to prioritize your debts, for the order you will focus on each one at the expense of the others. As I said early on, there is not just one answer here – because I like to incorporate the human element into this.  We are, after all, humans and not machines and we want realistic solutions.  If you are the type who needs positive reinforcement as often as possible, and truly enjoys the sense of accomplishment, go after the debt with the lowest balance first and use List #1 as your priority list. If you are mega-frugal and want to save as many pennies as well as dollars as possible, pick the debt with the highest APR first and use List #2.  I don’t recommend using List #3 exclusively – putting that together was just an extra tool for us.

7. Once you’ve decided on which list you will utilize, the remaining steps are these:  1) Add all extra funds to be dedicated toward debt elimination to the minimum payment on the first (priority) debt on your chosen list, and pay it ASAP.  Make the minimum required payment on all other debts ASAP (no later, obviously, than by the due date); 2) Do this each month until the priority debt is paid in full, then take the total payment amount you’ve been applying to the first debt and add it to the minimum payment on the second debt, and send that amount in to the second debt – the new priority debt – until it is paid off; 3) Continue taking the “snowballing” payment amount and adding to the minimum payment of the next debt on the list, until all your unsecured debt is history.

As you progress, the process rapidly accelerates as you dedicate the same amount of money monthly towards your total debt throughout.  DO NOT be tempted to decrease the payment amount at any time.

Nice!  Very cool accomplishment, that few folks achieve once they get in too deep.   You should treat yourself to an unscheduled nap in your favorite hammock.  WARNING!  Do NOT celebrate any part of this process by taking 14 friends out to a fancy dinner and putting the bill on one of your cards.  Think I’m joking?  You’d be surprised.

8. OK, last item is to put your cards where you will not be tempted to use them again. Do not destroy the cards, and do not cancel or close your accounts. Doing the latter hurts your credit rating, and eventually I want to show you how the savvy use of credit cards can add money to your assets column.  If you lack the discipline to avoid using them right after having paid them off, put them in a can with water and freeze the can.  That makes it a big hassle to access them, and improves your chances of thinking twice before making a purchase you will later regret.

Eventually, you will be thawing them out, but not for a little while yet.

**

DISCLAIMER:  This post represents the author’s opinion only, sometimes based on and supported by cited numbers and sometimes not. In no way should any part or all of the content of this post be interpreted as official financial advice, nor does it represent an intention to solicit readers into a specific strategy or investment.  Profitability is NEVER guaranteed.  Invest at your own risk.

Pay off debt or save? A quandary that is deceptively complicated

By BOB CUNNINGHAM

Another personal finance blog’s post on this subject caught my attention recently, and it got me to thinking that the question of whether to pay off debt as soon as possible, or maximize saving and investing, must be among the most-asked by Americans interested in smart money management.

The easy answer is to do both – after all, especially in the world of finance, how can diversification be a bad thing, right?  And the truth is, for most folks, paying off some debt and saving some money, too, probably IS prudent.

But there are factors that many gurus don’t properly consider, especially those who happen to come down particularly hard on either side of the aisle.

In the get-rid-of-that-nasty-debt-at-all-costs camp, the reasoning for paying off a 23% APR credit card ASAP is difficult to assail.  It’s sort of like an instant 23% return on your money… yeah, sort of.  Certainly, being able to ratchet that balance down rapidly is beneficial – a $120 minimum payment on $5,000 of credit card debt at 23% nets only about $24 going to principal, the other $96 pure interest profit for the company which issued the plastic.  That’s why you can end up paying nearly $20,000 to erase that debt if “you go the distance,” and just pay the minimum required each month.

But whenever you add money to the minimum, you have to figure the lost opportunity cost of not having that cash invested in a compounding account instead.  In other words, the interest goes both ways.  True, that performing asset is likely to fall way short of a 23% Rate Of Return, but in getting the money into the account earlier, you reap the rewards of more interest accrued long-term because of the magic of compounding.

The invest-as-much-as-you-can-and-don’t-worry-so-much-about-the-debt crowd, meanwhile, conveniently tends to overlook the lack of liquidity in most of the alleged best investments.  Want to build up your 401K and then use some of those funds to pay off that credit card?  Forget it.  Unless you’re turning 59 1/2 and are prepared to quit your job, it’s unlikely that will be an option for you.  And borrowing against your 401K generally defeats the purpose.

Also, don’t forget you will be paying taxes on your accrued savings when you finally do access it.  With the beefed up credit card payments, it’s after-tax dollars already so you get the full bang of your bucks toward eliminating principal.

I know… I haven’t really answered the question of which is wiser.  Well, here are some basic numbers using the following scenario:  An individual we will call Titus (why not?) is faced with a choice.  He makes $3,000 per month gross salary, has no savings yet, and owes $5,000 on a credit card at 20% interest with a minimum required monthly payment of $100.  His 401K at work offers a 50% match on up to 5% of his gross income, and is returning an average of 7.5% annually (figure 10% minus the typically exorbitant 2.5% of fees).  Lastly, Titus has determined he has $300 per month extra to dedicate either to savings or debt elimination.

If Titus opts to go after his credit card debt, at $400 per month ($300 extra plus the $100 minimum required payment), he will have his $5K debt paid off in about 15 months, after which he plans to put $300 monthly toward his 401K and improve his current standard of living with the $100 extra per month for discretionary spending.  After five years from the start of accelerating the pay-down of his debt, Titus has about $21,000 in his 401K with no debt. He achieved this with his $300 plus $75 from the company ($3,000 salary times 5% = $150 times 50% is $75), for 45 months. He went from minus $5,000 to plus $21,000.  Pretty sweet.

If there had been no company match, incidentally, he would have a little less than $17K.

On the other hand, if Titus chose to pay the $100 minimum on his debt and instead put the $300 toward his $401K, along with the $75 match, it would amount to about $27,000 in five years minus the $3,800 he would still owe on the card for a net gain of roughly $23,000.  Sans a company match, the net gain would be about $18K.

But before you key on $23K being more than $21K, one other factor needs to be considered:  Remember that Titus would not have the option of using the 401K money to pay off the $3,800 credit card balance, so that debt would continue charging 20% interest annually.  Chances are that this ongoing liability eats into (or completely decimates) what is otherwise a relatively small advantage for going the 401K route.

In the end, it is the company match of the 401K and the interest we credited in this example that pushed the pendulum towards not accelerating the pay-off of the credit card initially.  But what if we endured a down market during this five years and the return was only 3%?  Wouldn’t that make paying off the debt come out significantly better?  Yep.

Ah, and remember that Titus took $100 a month after the debt elimination and began using it as extra spending money.  He improved his budget flexibility, and that’s a tangible gain too.  I incorporated this into the example because it’s my opinion a large percentage of folks, faced with having $400 to “play with” after eliminating a debt, would choose to have fun with a portion of it.

Ultimately, in my opinion, a credit card debt at 20% interest should be your first and only priority because it is definitive, non-taxed progress.  Opting to contribute to the 401K up until the company match is maxed and then turning your attention to the credit card debt certainly is logical – you’ll never get a truly dissenting vote from me even if the math leans otherwise.

But ignoring the available acceleration of paying off big debt in order to pad your retirement account contributions is essentially leaping over dollars for quarters.

**

DISCLAIMER:  This post represents the author’s opinion only, sometimes based on and supported by cited numbers and sometimes not. In no way should any part or all of the content of this post be interpreted as official financial advice, nor does it represent an intention to solicit readers into a specific strategy or investment.  Profitability is NEVER guaranteed.  Invest at your own risk.