Snowball vs. Avalanche: Which One Is The Best Way To Pay Off Debt?

Don't get in your own way of a debt-free life.
The "snowball" and "avalanche" methods are two proven ways to pay off debt.
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The "snowball" and "avalanche" methods are two proven ways to pay off debt.

Paying off debt can feel like setting your money on fire every month. You work hard to make a living, diligently pay the minimums and yet see little progress.

You’re not the only one. The 2017 Planning & Progress Study by Northwestern Mutual found that Americans carry an average of $37,000 in debt, not including their mortgages. Of those who have debt, the study found that 45 percent spend up to half of their monthly income repaying it.

It’s a tough situation to be in, but there is a way out. And the right approach to paying off debt for good might come down to understanding your personality. “You have to take into consideration your personality type, or your behavior, to make the best decision,” said Chantel Bonneau, a wealth management adviser at Northwestern Mutual.

So when it comes to paying off debt according to your personality, there are two effective methods you can try: the “debt snowball” and “debt avalanche.” Which one you should choose depends on what motivates you most.

You Need Instant Gratification: Debt Snowball

If you’re the type of person who expects to lose five pounds after one spin class, the debt snowball could work for you. This debt repayment method is one that personal finance guru Dave Ramsey recommends to his followers. In fact, it’s step No. 2 in his popular “Baby Steps” money management program.

So how does it work? Start by making a list of all your debts, along with the amount you owe, minimum payment and interest rate. Order the list from smallest to largest debt. It should look something like this:

This is the framework for your plan of action. Every month, use every extra dollar you have to put toward the debt with the smallest balance, and pay the minimum on everything else. Once you’ve paid off that first debt, move on to the next.

The secret to the snowball method is that you experience a win right away. By knocking out your lowest balance quickly, you gain the motivation to keep going. As you free up money by eliminating a loan or credit card, you have more cash flow to pay down the next even faster ― a snowball effect.

For instance, take our example above. Let’s say you are on the hook for a total of $327 in minimum payments per month. You’re able to scrape together another $100. So every month, you have a total of $427 to allocate toward debt repayment. Start by paying a total of $115 toward Credit Card 1 each month while you pay the minimums on all other accounts. Once it’s paid off, take that $115 and add it to the $45 minimum payment on your next-smallest debt ― your car loan ― until it’s paid off, and so on.

Following the snowball strategy, you would pay off all your debt in 48 months and spend a total of $3,287.53 on interest. Use this handy debt snowball calculator to run the numbers yourself.

It’s not the most cost-effective way to repay debt, since higher-interest debts might be neglected in the beginning. Even so, if you need to see results right away in order to stay motivated, the snowball is probably your best option.

“For a lot of people, we both need that win and we need the simplification,” said Bonneau.

You’re All About The Bottom Line: Debt Avalanche

On the other hand, if your personality can be described as “Type A,” you might want to give the debt avalanche a shot.

This method works similarly to the snowball. However, instead of organizing your debt by smallest to largest balance, you’ll work your way down from highest to lowest interest rate, like this:

The debt avalanche is the most efficient way to pay off your debt. It essentially stops the bleeding of high interest rates so that you save the most money in the long run.

Let’s continue using our example from above. Take that $427 you have available monthly, but pay down the credit card with the highest rate first. Then move on to the second-highest interest rate, and keep going until your low-interest student loan is paid off last. You will have spent a total of $2,939 on interest ― a savings of $348 over the snowball method ― and paid off your debt one month sooner.

“Mathematically, you will pay off your debt faster if you start with the highest interest rate and work your way down,” Bonneau noted.

Putting Your Plan In Motion

When it comes to choosing the snowball or avalanche method, there’s really no right answer. You should opt for the strategy that you can actually stick with.

“The only thing we don’t want is secret option No. 3: Do nothing,” said Bonneau.

“Know that whichever plan you choose, you won’t see results overnight.”

To ensure you keep making progress, it helps to enlist another person in holding you accountable. “If you want the highest level of accountability, get an adviser,” said Bonneau.

Of course, Bonneau recognizes that hiring a financial advisor isn’t realistic for everyone. At the very least, she recommends asking a friend, significant other or family member to check in on your progress.

“When you say a goal to someone else, and then have check-ins scheduled, it’s much more likely for it to happen,” she said.

Finally, know that whichever plan you choose, you won’t see results overnight. Tackling debt is hard, and it takes time. You might experience a few slip-ups along the way, too. “If it was easy, no one would have debt,” said Bonneau. The key is to stick with your plan long-term.

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