If you’re struggling to pay off several debts at once, a group of researchers may have found the best strategy for success.
In the study, which was highlighted in the Harvard Business Review in December, researchers found people who concentrated on paying off just one of several debts before moving on to the others repaid their debt 15% faster than people who consolidated their debts and tackled them all at once.
The researchers, who hailed from Boston University, University of Alberta, University of Manitoba, and Georgetown University, collected anonymous data from more than 6,000 HelloWallet users over 36 months. HelloWallet is an online financial program that allows employees to make financial goals and track their spending and debt payments.
By analyzing the methods HelloWallet users used to pay off their debt — focusing on one small debt at a time or paying all debts at once — the researchers could tell which method worked best.
“Our research suggests that people are more motivated to get out of debt not only by concentrating on one account but also by beginning with the smallest,” Boston University professor Remi Trudel, co-author of the report, told the HBR.
If this strategy sounds familiar, it should. It’s exactly how the popular “debt snowball” strategy works. In this method, the key lies in building momentum early on by achieving small “wins,” paying off tiny debts first and working your way up to larger debts.
When you pay off your first $200 account balance, you’re more likely to be excited to tackle the credit card with $500 on it, then the card with a $1,500 balance, and so on. Likewise, by focusing on smaller debts, consumers are doing the crucial work of building good financial habits at an early stage. Once those habits become ingrained in their financial picture, they are more likely to keep them up, even as they take on larger debts.
If anything, Havard’s research simply supports why the snowball method is so popular — it really works.
Of course, if you are a fan of the other popular debt payoff methods like the debt avalanche or debt consolidation, this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on a path to failure. If you have the option to consolidate all of your debts into one single loan at a lower rate (for example, by taking advantage of a balance transfer), math is on your side. By consolidating your debts at a lower interest rate, you will spend less money on interest over time.
However, if your high interest debts also happen to be the largest of your debt balances, you run the risk of getting discouraged early on and losing momentum because it will take so much more time to pay them off. If you are not confident that you’ll be motivated to pay off one large debt balance, you might be better off — as the Harvard study shows — working on your smallest debt first, even if it means paying more interest in the long run.
If you’re still interested in exploring different debt paydown methods, here’s a quick recap of the debt snowball vs. debt avalanche.
When you snowball debt, you order all of your debts by balance and prioritize paying off the account with the lowest amount first. The method was made popular by Dave Ramsey and is the approach many use when tackling debt. The hope is that paying off lower balance loans will motivate you to pay off the remainder of the debt.
Mathematicians would likely argue in favor of the debt avalanche method. The avalanche approach has you order your debt by interest rate in order of the balance. Then, you prioritize paying off the account balance with the highest interest rate and attack the rest of your debt that way. The argument for this method is that it saves you money in the long run since you can avoid paying the most interest and will likely address the principal of your debt faster.
If your account with the highest interest rate is also your highest or one of your highest accounts by amount, the “avalanche” could have the opposite effect of the snowball method. It can be difficult to stay motivated if you don’t feel as if you are making much progress, and you could be discouraged early on.