Debt Avalanche vs. Debt Snowball: Which Payoff Method Is Right for You?

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Updated on Wednesday, November 14, 2018

debt avalanche vs. debt snowball

You have several debts piling up, and you’re starting to worry you’re losing control over them. You have a car loan, student loan debt and two mounting credit card balances that are only getting higher with each passing month.

You’ve heard of two primary methods for paying off debt: the debt avalanche method and the debt snowball method. Both are effective ways to eliminate debt. But which one is right for you? Here’s everything you need to know about the two methods of debt elimination.

Debt avalanche vs. debt snowball: What’s the difference?

Both forms of debt elimination involve paying off debts one at a time. The primary difference between the two forms of debt elimination is which debts are paid off first.

With the debt avalanche method (also referred to as debt stacking), you pay off the debt with the highest interest rate first. With the debt snowball method, which was popularized by Dave Ramsey, author of “The Total Money Makeover” and radio personality, you prioritize the debt with the lowest balance.

Below, we’ve explored the nuances of each method so that you can figure out which one is ideal for you.

How does the debt snowball method work?

The debt snowball method involves taking a look at all your debt balances and paying them off from smallest to largest. You still pay the monthly minimum balance on all your debts, but put an extra, predetermined amount of money each month toward the smallest debt.

“Once you pay off the lowest balance loan, you would take that extra money and move it toward the second lowest balance,” said Forrest Baumhover, a certified financial planner at Westchase Financial Planning in Tampa, Fla. “At some point, you snowball. All of these principal payments that you were paying toward — all of these tiny loans or credit card balances — are now focused on the last remaining one.”

Who is it good for?

People who benefit from regular motivation. Consumers who opt for the debt snowball method tend to see success due to the “little wins” that go with paying off small debts quickly.

“If the difference in interest rates is not that much in terms of the overall savings, I might tell somebody to go with the snowball method just because they get to see progress sooner,” said Luis Rosa, a certified financial planner with Build a Better Financial Future in Henderson, Nev. “They might have smaller balances that they can get rid of in a month or two, and then they continue to be motivated because they can see some progress at the very beginning of the plan.”

The debt snowball method can also be beneficial for people who have a significant amount of debt in various forms. “The way I see it is if you’re starting with a pretty big number, then a lot of little victories will help you along the way,” Baumhover said.

Does it save you money?

Not necessarily. The debt avalanche method typically makes more sense as you save money on interest. But Rosa and Baumhover said people are often better able to stick to the snowball method because of the satisfaction of “little wins.”

Research from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University showed that even though the avalanche method typically leads to more savings, consumers who opt for the snowball method are more likely to eliminate all their debt.

Breaking down how it works

Rosa offers this example:

Debt TypeMinimum PaymentCurrent PaymentBalanceInterest Rate

Car loan

$359

$359

$20,000

7.99% APR

Personal loan

$75

$75

$800

5.99%

Credit card No. 1

$100

$100

$5,000

17.99% APR

Credit card No. 2

$50

$50

$3,000

15% APR

If a consumer only made the monthly minimum payments on the above debts, it would take them 112 months to pay them off, Rosa said. Adding an extra $200 each month would cut that to 44 months.

Assuming the consumer puts an additional $200 per month (on top of minimum payments) toward paying off their debts from smallest to largest, they will have paid off the personal loan by December 2018 if the above scenario begins in October 2018. With the debt avalanche method, the personal loan will not be paid off until August 2019.

How does the debt avalanche method work?

If you opt for the debt avalanche method, you will continue making the monthly minimum payments on all your debts, but you will put your extra monthly allotment toward the debt with the highest interest rate, not the debt with the lowest balance.

“The key differentiator between the avalanche and the snowball [is that] the avalanche is going to be based on the highest interest rates first,” Rosa said. This means that you’ll likely focus on higher-interest debts, such as credit cards, before lower-interest debts, such as student loans.

Who is it good for?

People who are intrinsically motivated and who aren’t as concerned with the “little wins” that go with the snowball method.

“The avalanche method is typically known to be the most efficient mathematically,” Rosa said. “But sometimes the thing that’s best mathematically isn’t the best for you, because your card with the higher interest rate might be your higher balance card, and you might not see any progress for quite a bit.”

Does it save you money?

Typically, this debt repayment method saves you money, Rosa said. Because you are paying off the debt with the highest rate first, you will see more savings in interest paid.

Breaking down how it works

The benefits of the avalanche method can be seen using the same example as above:

Debt TypeMinimum PaymentCurrent PaymentBalanceInterest Rate

Car loan

$359

$359

$20,000

7.99% APR

Personal loan

$75

$75

$800

5% APR

Credit card No. 1

$100

$100

$5,000

17.99% APR

Credit card No. 2

$50

$50

$3,000

15% APR

If a consumer puts an extra $200 toward their debt each month and pays it off in 44 months (like the above example), they will not have the quick “win” that accompanies the debt snowball method, but will instead save slightly more on interest. The debt snowball method, in this case, has an overall interest savings of $6,496.82, while the debt avalanche method has an overall interest savings of $6,669.64.

Which debt repayment method is best for you?

Both methods can be beneficial strategies for paying off debt. What it typically boils down to is a person’s mindset and long-term goals.

What does Baumhover typically recommend?

“It depends on the type of client that I’m working with,” he said. “For people that need to tick off little milestones along the way to know that they’re actually making progress, there’s a powerful emotional aspect to [the snowball method]. But when you run the numbers, you do pay a little bit more in interest.”

For people who have intrinsic motivation and don’t need “little wins” to stay on track, the avalanche method might be a better option. “If someone really has a focus on just minimizing the amount of interest, then the debt avalanche would probably be what they would want to do,” Baumhover said.

To figure out which method is ideal for your specific financial situation, you can use this calculator.

5 ways to prioritize and pay off your debt

Now that you know the difference between these two debt payoff methods, it’s time to get started. Here are the first steps you should take once you’ve decided to tackle your debt.

1. Review your debts

Rosa said the first thing people should do is list out every single debt they have by name, APR, balance and minimum payment. Then, he suggests using a free online calculator, which allows you to enter all your debt information and compare different debt elimination methods.

This step is crucial for success. “The debt avalanche vs. the debt snowball, neither of those is going to work for someone who’s not willing to take a look at their whole picture,” Baumhover said.

2. Take a look at your spending habits

Once you’ve identified all your debts, take a look at your spending habits so that you can figure out how much money can go toward your debt elimination plan each month. “[People] should really try to set a realistic expectation of what they’re willing to live on in terms of their budget,” Baumhover said.

The most important thing is to be realistic. Don’t say, “I’ll put an extra $1,000 toward debt each month” without actually taking a hard look at your finances to see if this is possible. You’ll be setting yourself up for failure, Baumhover said.

“It’s kind of like trying to lose 50 pounds,” he said. “It’s not realistic to do it in a month, but if you say, ‘Maybe I need to do it over a year and a half, and I can afford to lose 3 pounds a month,’ then that’s a little bit more sustainable.”

3. Decide which debts you’ll prioritize

This is the point at which you should figure out which debt elimination plan is ideal for you. Are you the type of person who would benefit from small wins each month? Does the idea of eliminating three of your eight debts quickly appeal to you and sound motivating? If so, the debt snowball method is likely the right option for you.

If you have a history of diligence and determination and don’t think the “little wins” would do much for your motivation, then the debt avalanche method might be a better option for you as it’ll lead to more savings.

4. Get advice from an expert

If you’re struggling to prioritize and pay off your debts, consider contacting a financial expert such as a certified financial planner or a nonprofit credit counselor. They can help you take a big-picture look at your finances and offer advice on which strategy is better for you.

5. Stop racking up debt

Rosa said he often sees consumers begin a debt elimination plan and continue racking up credit card debt. This can ruin a debt elimination plan.

“Some people continue to use the cards,” Rosa said. “For example, they might be going after rewards points. The system only works if you no longer use the cards.”

But Rosa added that you shouldn’t necessarily close all your credit cards since this can have an impact on your credit score.

“If you have a credit card from 10 years ago, a major card like MasterCard, Visa or AmEx, you might not want to necessarily close it, even if you paid it off,” he said. “Just continue to use it occasionally, like for gas, [and] pay it off at the end of the month so that you keep that history.”

Another way to pay off your debt: Debt Consolidation

The avalanche and snowball methods aren’t the only ways to manage your debt.

You could take out a debt consolidation loan aka a personal loan to combine your existing debts. In doing so, you’ll get to make just one monthly payment on a loan with a lower interest rate and different repayment term. This is called debt consolidation, and it’s another repayment strategy that could save you money on interest.

A debt consolidation loan could help you get out of debt faster by reducing the total interest you pay over time. You also get to choose a new repayment term on your debt. So if you want to aggressively pay down your debt and save more money on interest, you could simply choose a shorter repayment period. Compare up to five offers in minutes when clicking “see offers” below. Note: Clicking “see offers” below does not affect your credit.

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Regardless of the repayment strategy you choose, you’re taking a step in the right direction by deciding to take control of your finances and eliminate your debt.

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