Debt Repayment 101

101Brad’s looking at his debt and wondering where to start:

My wife and I are trying to decide what to do with our “extra” income each month: pay down our home equity ($18K at 9.13%), pay down our other debt (student loans of $6K at 7.14% and $13K at 3.75%; car loan of $8K at 4.2%); or put the money into our savings account (at 5.05%).

First of all, let’s ask ourselves about tax deductibility. The only loans here likely to be tax deductible are the student loans (I’m assuming the home equity loan is a HELOC, not just a funny term for a mortgage). Also, you’ll have to pay taxes on the savings account. So, let’s figure you’re in the 28% tax bracket and re-figure the true percentages on each one:

$18K home equity loan – 9.13%
$6K student loan – 5.14% (after the tax benefit)
$8K car loan – 4.2%
savings account – 3.94% (after taxes)
$13K student loan – 2.7% (after the tax benefit)

Assuming that you are actually going to make strong contributions to your savings account, you should pay down the debts that are of a percentage higher than the savings account first. In this case, that means starting with the home equity loan, then following with the small student loan, then the car loan. At that point, you’re better off stocking up in the savings account – but the key is that you’re actually stocking up here and judging by the debt, it’s likely that you will find other uses for the money.

In that case, I recommend largely subscribing to Dave Ramsey’s “debt snowball” philosophy, except that instead of ranking the debts by the amount owed, you rank them by interest rate. That means you should do the following:

The Debt Repayment Strategy

Get $1,000 in the savings account as an emergency fund. If you have children, you may want more than that, but have at least $1,000 in there for a car emergency, etc. This way, a bad situation won’t build additional debt.

Pay off the $18K home equity loan at 9.13%. That’s an imposing debt and you need to pay that one off as soon as possible. As long as you have $1,000 in the emergency fund, focus on paying this debt until it’s gone; if you have to tap the emergency fund, focus on replenishing that back to $1,000 before paying down this debt.

Pay off the $6K student loan at an adjusted 5.14%. This is the next debt to go. Again, if your emergency fund goes below $1,000, slow down the overpayments here and build that fund back up. Now that the home equity loan is gone, you should be able to make very big payments here and knock this debt off quickly.

Pay off the $8K car loan at 4.2%. Keep rolling the debt payments forward – you should pay this one off next, paying as much as you possibly can on the principal. Again, remember the emergency fund and replenish it if you use it.

Pay off the $13K student loan at 2.7%. Even though this is a very low interest loan, I’d still recommend paying it off before building more savings. This is mostly due to it being a debt, and any debt is simply a bet that your future self can take care of it. That’s not a bet that I like. There is an argument about not paying this one off immediately, but I would get myself debt free ASAP.

Then, build a 3-6 month emergency fund in that savings account. Shoot for building up six months’ worth of living expenses in that account so that, in the event of a major crisis or a job loss, you’re fine.

When you’re there, suddenly life becomes a lot less stressful.

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