In a recent discussion about why I’m looking at paying off debt in the short term over investing, a reader mentioned Dave Ramsey’s book The Total Money Makeover, which basically encourages everyone to follow these seven steps to financial freedom:
1. $1,000 to start an emergency fund
2. Pay off all debt (except the home) using a debt snowball
3. 3 to 6 months of expenses in savings
4. Invest 15% of household income into Roth IRAs and pre-tax retirement
5. College funding for children
6. Pay off home early
7. Build wealth by investing
These steps were debated rather vigorously in the comments, with some people thinking that these were a great idea and others discarding them as rubbish. I thought I would give my general thoughts on them, especially as they apply to our personal situation.
First of all, in April 2006 we were at step zero on this plan. We hadn’t done any of these, a few of our bills were late, and we were feeling rather desperate. The culprit? Overspending.
Since then, we built up our $1,000 emergency fund, paid off all of our debts except our student loans and our mortgage, moved into a house, got four months’ worth of living expenses built up, started putting more than 15% into our retirement plans, and started a well-funded 529 for both of our kids. In other words, we completed steps one, three, four, and five of Dave’s plan, and largely completed step two (we still have a few student loans, but no consumer debt).
Thus, my real decision was between jumping ahead to Dave’s seventh step or going back and finishing up step two and working on step six. I think that most people would agree that steps one through five make a lot of sense – build an emergency fund, get rid of all of your high-interest debt, build a strong retirement plan, and fund college for your children. After that, it gets a little bit hairy.
For the long term, it usually makes sense to jump into investing at that point, if your only debt is your mortgage (in our case, we lumped student loans in with the mortgage because they’re fixed rate loans below 8%). With a time horizon of better than ten years, making minimum payments on your loans and investing for the long term will net you more money.
However, investing first assumes that you are not considering any significant lifestyle changes and are planning on steady income. The rules change in our case, because we are strongly leaning toward a stay-at-home option for one or the other of us. Thus, even though we have a long time horizon, our shorter-term goals (being a stay-at-home parent for a short period) have more urgency than our longer-term goals – our children are only young once, and when they’re in school, we both plan on working again. We still plan on looking for that country estate, but it’s worth it to us to push it off for a few years so we can provide a strong personal foundation for life for our children.
Because of that, focusing on debt reduction, as per Dave’s plan, makes more sense to us. It reduces our monthly bills by a significant factor (eliminating all of the student loans before one of us stays at home will reduce our bill load quite a bit) and our “investment” in debt repayment does pay 7-8% guaranteed (depending on the interest rate of the student loan).
So what about Dave? Dave Ramsey’s plan is a brilliant starting point, particularly if you’re completely unsure about what to do with your financial situation, but it is not gospel. Different situations require different plans – there is no “one size fits all” financial planning solution. If someone tries to sell you one, run away fast.
The debt turnaround that my wife and I experienced over the last year and a half opened this door for us. Without really discovering frugal living and the value and need to get out of debt, we would never be in a situation where we could realistically consider one of us making a major life change. Regardless of the decision we make here, our foundation is far, far more solid than it was eighteen months ago.