Rule #4: Eliminate (and Avoid) High Interest Debt.

14 money rulesA reader asked me if I could break down my ideas into a handful of principles. After some careful thought, I came up with a list of fourteen basic “rules” that summarize my money and life philosophy. I’ll be presenting these as a weekly series.

This rule is about as subtle as a sledgehammer, of course. Many of you started visiting The Simple Dollar because you came to this realization on your own – high interest debt is a terrible idea, and even low interest debts are a terrible idea. Let’s count the ways.

Reasons to Avoid High Interest Debt

The higher the interest rate, the more money you lose.

Leave a $1,000 debt on a credit card with an 5.5% APR for a year and you lose $55 – not good. But if you bump that amount up to a level that’s typical for credit cards – say, 19.9% – and you’re up to $199 a year. Gone. Poof. Vanished.

The higher the debt level, the more money you lose.

So, you have $1,000 debt on a credit card with a 19.9% APR and you lose $199 a year. Bump that up to $5,000 and you’re losing $998 a year. Gone. Nothing in return.

You’re open to extra fees

Late payment fees, over-limit fees, annual fees, ATM fees, cash advance fees — hidden fees that drain your money. If there’s a way to ding you, credit card companies will figure out how to do it. A fee here, a fee there, and you’re suddenly watching even more money evaporate for nothing in return.

A required debt payment each month reduces your freedom.

With that $5,000 debt above, you’re paying about $100 every single month as a minimum payment. That’s $100 you could be saving for a down payment. That’s $100 you could be saving to start a business. That’s $100 you could be saving for a car. That’s $100 you could be saving towards retiring early. That’s $100 you could be saving towards a great vacation. Your freedom is gone, eaten by the debt monster.

Jigh interest debt brings other debt into your life.

You make a big commitment to getting rid of all of this debt, then start really bearing down on it. You get half of the debt gone, then all of a sudden disaster strikes. You lose your job. Your car breaks down. Your hot water heater leaks water all over the basement. Suddenly, you’re busting out the plastic again to take care of the problem – and you’re right back deep into debt. It’s like escaping from quicksand – if all of your strokes are perfect, you can pull yourself out slowly, but if even one little thing goes wrong, you’re slurped right back in.

In other words, it costs you money, costs you freedom, and puts you into a vicious cycle of even more debt.

How to Eliminate High Interest Debt

There are really two prongs to getting out of this trap. Whether you’re avoiding it entirely or you’re trying to escape from the pit of despair, there’s one big first step you must take.

Build a Small Emergency Fund

The first step is not paying off debt. Paying off debt first is like kicking to get out of quicksand without getting your arms around something safe first – you might be able to kick out, but if anything goes wrong, you’ll just be sucked in deeper.

So, no matter what state you’re in, give yourself that rock – a cash emergency fund, sitting in a savings account. It doesn’t need to be too big – $1,000 should be your big target, but just start by putting $20 a week into savings – or more if you can swing it. Instruct your bank to do this automatically. Do it right now – call up your bank and ask them to do it.

You won’t miss that $20 a week. Your life will quickly find little ways to save – you’ll eat a few less expensive meals, start carpooling with a friend, or skip a few coffee shop visits and you’re there. What happens is that over the course of three months, your savings account reaches $250. After just shy of a year, your savings account will have $1,000 in it.

If you’re already making extra payments on your debts and you don’t have an emergency fund, stop those overpayments for a while and deposit that extra amount into your savings each month until you reach that $1,000.

Leave this money alone except for an emergency. You might be tempted to spend it on something fun or to pay off a big slug of debt with it. Don’t. That money is your rock – it’ll be there for you if your car breaks down or you lose your job. You won’t be sucked back into debt by these unfortunate events – your savings will save you.

What do you do when you reach that $1,000 level? Many people keep saving. Then, once a month, they sweep anything over $1,000 back into their checking and use it to make an extra debt payment, knocking down their debt without touching their $1,000 emergency fund.

Here’s the big key: if you do face that emergency, like having your car break down or losing your job, and you tap that emergency fund, replenish the fund after the emergency. Go back to minimum payments on your debts and rebuild that fund. It’s your rock.

I’ve written a detailed guide to building your first emergency fund if you want to know more.

Make a Debt Repayment Plan

When you have that emergency fund in place, it’s time to start tackling your debts in an intelligent fashion. Make a big list of all of your debts; then, attempt to get the rate on each of those debts reduced. Give your credit card companies a call and negotiate your rate down. Contact your local credit union and see if there are any opportunities to consolidate your debt at a lower rate.

Once you’ve done these things, list all of your remaining debts in order of interest rate, with the highest rate first. Then throw everything you can at the highest interest rate debt. Your only extra payment should be towards this top debt, and it should be the biggest overpayment you can muster without tapping your emergency fund. Live lean. Sell off stuff you don’t use. Find ways to earn a few extra bucks to throw at it.

Once that first debt is gone, throw everything at the next one, then the next one, then the next one. Your extra payments will grow larger because you’ve got fewer minimum payments to make, and soon you’ll find yourself free.

I’ve written a detailed guide to building a debt repayment plan, too.

Avoiding High Interest Debt

I’m not a “no debt” absolutist. I think that home mortgages are often worthwhile for most people, and I think credit cards can be a useful tool if used carefully.

Having said that, many people do not use credit cards carefully. Instead of carefully using them as a tool during very regular purchases (like gas) and then setting the cash aside to pay the bill in full each month, they use credit cards mindlessly to buy whatever they throw in their shopping cart, not worrying too much about prices because, hey, the credit card will cover it!

Bad idea. If you have any inclination in that direction, cut up your credit cards, seriously. It’s the equivalent of swinging a chainsaw around with your eyes closed after knocking back three shots – you might luck out and wind up safe, but it’s more likely to wind up bloody and painful.

Instead, adopt a different approach. Leave your card at home most of the time. When you do use it, use it for specific purposes, like using a BP credit card and use it only at BP gas stations so you can get a nice kick back, or use the Target Visa only at Target to get 10% off your entire purchase regularly, and pay off the balance in full every time. Otherwise, leave it at home and use a debit card (one that features a Visa or MasterCard logo) for your purchases because then you’re actually accountable for every dime you spend while still enjoying the convenience of card use.

There are two big reasons for using this approach instead of going entirely down the cash road. First, it builds a positive credit rating, and a good credit rating improves your insurance rates and helps your employment opportunities. Second, using cards only in a very targeted fashion – as shown above – and paying off the bills in full each time results in some sweet cash kickbacks – 3% at least.

You’ve just got to respect the tool – and not start swinging it around like a toddler with an axe.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.