So, you’re eliminating your credit card debt. And your friend tells you that they know a thing or two about personal finance and tell you that you MUST quickly choose between using the Debt Snowball method or the Debt Avalanche method to pay off your debt or else you are making a huge mistake. Which method are you going to use?
Really? There’s only two choices and I MUST pick only one right now and use it forever? Not true! Although there are pros and cons for these two popular debt elimination approaches, nothing says you must only use one of the two methods and be faithful to that method forever. That’s a dumb dichotomy. You don’t have to pick one over the other. In fact, many times, a mixture of the two methods might be best. Why would we want to put that kind of unnecessary pressure on anyone who is trying to do something as important to personal finance as eliminate their credit card debt? Debt elimination is hard enough without undo requirements. Dumb dichotomies can get in the way of financial freedom because they make the task that much harder to accomplish. Here’s a look at some financial freedom dumb dichotomies and how to avoid them:
Snowball Or Avalanche
To finish the discussion of which debt elimination approach is best, we first have know a little about the person eliminating the debt. Does that person need constant motivation to stay the course? If so, then the Debt Snowball is perfect, where the focus is to pay off the smallest credit card balances first and then work off the larger accounts as the smaller ones are paid off. This approach motivates the debtor in that the debtor sees a rapid reduction in creditors and uses that motivation to continue the debt elimination effort.
Another valid debt elimination technique is called the Debt Avalanche, whereby the debtor pays off the highest cost debt first. In other words, the debtor pays off the credit card that has the highest interest rate first, then works his way down the list towards the lowest interest rate card until all debt is repaid. This technique may interest a “math person” or a cost conscious person. This approach affords the debtor the lowest cost approach to debt elimination. This blog is not judging one approach versus another, but intends to highlight that you don’t have to pledge allegiance to one or the other. In fact, a combination of the two can very effectively motivate the debtor to eliminate the debt AND minimize the amount of interest paid during the debt elimination. For instance, some people have had success starting out with the debt snowball by paying off a small balance to get a quick win, and therefore boost motivation, and then switching to the debt avalanche to reduce interest payments.
From my point of view, “just tackle the debt!” Eliminate it as fast as possible and at the lowest cost as possible because debt, especially consumer debt, is the biggest obstacle to building wealth and more importantly, financial freedom. Debt snowball, debt avalanche or a combination of both…use either or both but just kill the debt!
Looking for a great resource to lead you through debt elimination? Check out Dave Ramsey’s book:
Emergency Fund: In Savings Or An Investment?
An emergency fund, money set aside for when, not if, you have a real financial emergency, is central for financial freedom. In effect, an emergency fund is self-insurance to ensure that an emergency 1) does not force you into deep credit card debt or 2) cause you physical and emotional stress from money worries. And for some time there has been an ongoing debate where that money should reside. The two loudest groups suggest that an emergency fund show either be placed in a savings account (because it is the most readily available) or in a secure mutual fund (because it can earn a “greater than inflation” return while sitting in the account). In reality, this is a dumb dichotomy, because you don’t have to choose one or the other. While both are valid options, you could also split the money between an account that is readily available (like a savings account, understanding it will have a very low or no return) and a safe investment like a mutual fund or something similar that produces a larger return on your money. While leading experts, like Dave Ramsey, suggest you have between three to six months of expenses in your emergency fund, you can allocate that money according to your priorities and risk level.
Investing: Active Or Passive?
Active investing, defined here as using professional investing resources to buy and sell investment instruments, is an effective investment approach. So too, is passive investing, where investors invest their money in simple automated investments, like index funds or ETF’s. I recently witnessed a lively debate where people took sides on the “right” investment approach. The battle was focused on the slightly better returns of the active investment approach versus the low cost and low stress of the passive investment approach. There is no one right answer! This is a dumb dichotomy. Both approaches work and the right approach for any investor is based on that investor’s needs and approach to investing. Some people, like me, have both active and passive investments. The point is, there’s no one right approach and you don’t have to unilaterally choose.
Budgeting: To The Dollar Or With Margin
Budgeting is essential to achieving financial freedom because the budget “tells our money where to go instead of just wondering where it all went” (Dave Ramsey quote). Yet most Americans don’t take the time to budget and the results are not good. The facts are that the same percentage of people in America that do not budget (roughly 74%) equal the same percentage of people who are living paycheck to paycheck! Budgeting is important. But the debate between the experts that say you must either budget “to the dollar” and have every dollar accountable to a category, or, budget with a large amount of margin, or reserve cash, has formed a dumb dichotomy. It doesn’t have to be one form or the other. Pick the budget form that works for you and follow it. Since only 26% of Americans budget anyway, any form of budget would be better than the norm! There’s just a couple foundational rules that a good budget must follow to be effective and sustained: The budget must balance, must be measured and must be followed to be effective.
Financial Freedom Is The Point
Eliminating debt, having an emergency fund, investing money and having a budget are all essential to developing financial freedom. But the approach to accomplish each one of these elements is dependent upon the person or persons involved, and any person suggesting that one approach is inherently better than the other is causing a dumb dichotomy, which is both unnecessary and distracting. Eliminate your consumer debt as fast as possible, using the method, or methods, that work best for you. Make and keep an emergency fund and reduce your financial worries. Invest money to develop wealth in the way you are most comfortable. Last, make a budget and follow it to ensure proper allocation of your precious dollars. Don’t let any dumb dichotomies distract you from your pursuit of financial freedom! These dichotomies are just…dumb.