Here’s Dave Ramsey’s Snowball Method for paying off credit cards:
Step 1 – Make a list of all your credit cards, ranked in order from the highest balance to the smallest balance.
Step 2 – Beginning with the card with the smallest balance, pay as much as you can on that card while paying the minimums on the other cards.
Step 3 – Once the card with the smallest balance is paid off, take the amount you were paying towards that card and apply to the card with the next lowest balance.
Step 4 – Keep on keepin’ on until ALL the cards are paid off.
Now, contrast Dave’s Snowball Method with Suze Orman’s Method found in The Road to Wealth:
Step 1 – Figure out the largest possible amount you can afford to pay each month toward all your credit card balances together.
Step 2 – Add $10 to each minimum payment that your credit card company is asking you to pay.
Step 3 – Add up all your minimum payments plus $10 added for each card.
Step 4 – Hopefully the difference between the figure found in Step 1 is GREATER than the figure in found in Step 3. If so, apply the difference to the card with the HIGHEST interest rate.
Step 5 – Once that card is paid off, you continue the process (Steps 1 – 4) until ALL the cards are paid off.
Unsurprisingly, being a numbers junkie, I had to start doing some calculations. I created a pair of credit cards with different balances and interest rates and ran the numbers time and time again. What did I find? Most of the time, Suze’s method was better, but not always.
Let’s say you have two credit cards. Your first card has a balance of $5,000 on it, has an 18.9% interest rate on it, and has a minimum payment of $79 (which will take more than 25 years to pay off at that rate). Your second card is a bit better: $2,000 balance, a 10.9% interest rate, and a minimum payment of $19 (again, more than 25 years to pay it off). You’ve decided to commit $500 a month to eliminating this sick pile of debt.
If you use Dave’s method, you’ll make the minimum payment on the first card ($79) and then take the rest of the $500 and use that as payments on the second card ($421). In the fifth month, you’ll have a nice moral victory: that first card is paid off! You can then write a check for $500 a month to the first card, which will be paid off in the sixteenth month with a final payment of $361.69.
However, if you use Suze’s method, you’ll make the minimum payment plus $10 on the second card ($29), then pay the rest on the first card ($471). At the twelve month mark, the big card will be paid off, so you can then put the full payment of $500 towards the smaller card, which will also disappear at month sixteen. The only difference is that with Suze’s method, that last payment in the sixteenth month will be only $262.51. Her method saves you about $100 in this case.
However, if you reverse the interest rates (so that the low-balance card has the high rate), Dave’s plan wins, but only by about $75.
If you’re going to subscribe to a plan and don’t want to run a bunch of numbers in a complex Excel spreadsheet, Suze’s plan is better than Dave’s plan. However, there is a better plan than either Suze’s or Dave’s plan: pay off the highest interest credit card first.
In the first case, where the high interest credit card also has the highest balance, this plan is much like Suze’s, except that you only pay $19 towards the low interest card and $481 towards the high interest card at first. Just like with Suze’s plan, you pay off the high interest card in month 12, but in the sixteenth and final month, you only have to pay $257.56. This is just barely more optimal than Suze’s plan (by $5). In the second case, however, this plan was identical to Dave’s plan.
In short, the pay off the highest interest credit card first always beat or tied both Dave and Suze’s plans strictly by the numbers. Suze’s plan was never optimal, but it was close to optimal the majority of the time. Dave’s plan was either exactly optimal or else quite poor compared to both the “highest interest” plan and Suze’s plan.
However, I’m leaving out one important factor: the psychology factor. Dave’s plan is the best from a psychological standpont because it enables you to feel a level of success much quicker than Suze’s plan or the “highest interest” plan. Even Suze’s plan is better than the “highest interest” plan because you have the effect of doing “more than the minimum” on all fronts, which creates a sense of real progress.
Which plan is right for you? The truth is that it depends on how you’re wired.