A Little More Than the Minimum

Carolyn writes in:

For the longest time, I’ve been making larger than minimum payments on all of my debts. I got the idea from Suze Orman because she said that if you just make minimum payments, you’ll never get rid of debt. I have two credit cards and a student loan. Here are their interest rates and outstanding balances and minimum payments:

Credit card 1 – 19.99% interest – $3,400 balance – $57 minimum payment
Credit card 2 – 15.99% interest – $4,000 balance – $55 minimum payment
Student loan – 6.75% interest – $41,000 balance – $470 minimum payment

What I’ve been doing is putting $700 in payments towards these debts each month, but I have been spreading out the extra among the loans. This means adding $39 to each payment, giving me a payment of $96 on the first card, $94 on the second card, and $509 on the student loan.

Is this the right way to go?

Suze is both right and wrong here. She’s absolutely correct in making the point that if you make just minimum payments on a debt, you’ll find it takes decades to fully pay it off. Even worse, the longer you take to pay off a debt, the more money you pay in just interest on your debt – it’s just money lost.

However, she’s not quite right on the idea that you should make larger-than-minimum payments on all debts.

According to my back-of-the-envelope math on the three debts you named, it will take about thirty years to pay off each credit card with just minimum payments, and just under ten years to wipe out that student loan with just minimum payments. If you use your alternate plans with a bit larger payments on each debt, you save about $6,000 in total interest, pay off each credit card in about five years, and pay off the student loan one year earlier. In other words, you’ll go another five years without eliminating any of the debts.

I agree with making overpayments, but I think you should channel all extra payments to the highest interest debt. In this case, that’s the credit card with the 19.99% rate. If you make a $117 extra payment on that debt each month, you’ll pay off that debt in a year and a half. At that point, you can apply a $174 extra payment (the $117 extra payment you were making, plus the $57 you were making on that first debt that’s now eliminated) on the second credit card, paying it off in about a year and a half. You can then apply a $229 extra payment each month to that student loan (the two minimum payments, plus the $117 in extra payments) and eliminate that student loan in about seven and a half years (total).

That simple shift will get you to debt freedom one and a half years earlier than before.

This is called a debt repayment plan, and the basic idea behind it works no matter how many debts you have or what type they are. You just order the debts by interest rate, make minimum payments on all of the debts, and make the biggest extra payment you can to the debt with the highest interest rate.

You may also want to do things like negotiate with your credit card companies for a lower rate. The worst thing they can do is lock your account, which doesn’t matter a bit if you’re not using it, and you might just see a nice interest rate reduction, saving you even more money.

Just stick with contributing $700 toward your debt every month and you’ll be fine.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.