I always like questions about debt pay-off strategies because they’re partly about math and partly about psychology. The numbers are very important, and debt payoff strategies should not be planned or implemented without a good understanding of the long-term financial consequences. There are some cases where, from a personal perspective, it makes sense to formulate a plan that costs more in the long-run but alleviates other problems during its course.
That’s why I strongly encourage people to take a look at the Debt Avalanche method for paying off credit card debt before they blindly go with a different but popular solution. I understand why people are drawn to a strategy that theoretically takes longer to become debt-free and costs more in interest, and I have no problem with that choice as long as they recognize the long-term financial consequences of spending more money than necessary.
Today, a reader wrote in with a question about his debt payoff strategy.
I have $2,000 on a credit with 0% interest for a year and a car loan of $3,000 with 5.4% interest. My wife and I will owe big on student loans in Janaury and I want to get my car and/or credit card paid off fast. Should I pay extra on credit card payment or car? How important is it to pay off the 0% in one year, the interest will shoot up to 10% in April 2012.
I’ll answer the second question first, because it may have a bearing on the answer to the first question. It’s important to pay off the 0% balance in one year. First of all, although the credit card company is indicating the “go-to” rate will be 10% in April 2012, this is likely a variable rate. Most credit cards are using variable rates to get around the Credit CARD Act’s stipulation that makes it more difficult for credit card issuers to change (fixed) interest rates. It may be that when the introductory rate expires the rate on the balance is higher than 10%.
Also, when introductory rates expire before the balance has been paid in full, in some circumstances the go-to rate can be applied to the entire charged balance during the introductory period. That’s rarely the case with 0% APR balance transfer promotions, but it’s more common with deals that feature a limited-time 0% APR on purchases. I found that out personally with a store credit card once. Even with one dollar left of the original amount charged during the introductory period, one would likely owe back interest on the full $2,000 or more initially charged. Always pay off balances incurred during promotions before the introductory period expires. These 0% APR balance transfer deals are often great, but only if you abide strictly to the terms and take extra effort not to jeopardize your promotional rate.
I don’t know the rest of this reader’s financial situation, but given what was included in the note, my suggestion and my answer to the first question is to determine what payments are necessary to pay the $2,000 before the last bill is due in April 2012 and make that a priority. If the readers determines it would take $167 a month to pay the balance before the interest rate would increase, and if the cash flow is available, pay at least that much. Play it safe and get the balance paid off a little early, if possible. At the same time, pay the minimum or more to the car loan and student loan. When the student loan payments start in January, that will cut into your ability to pay off the car and the credit card. The reader can prepare for that by striving to pay off the credit card even faster.
Without knowing the reader’s cash flow, I wouldn’t be able to offer more specific suggestions.
Published or updated March 31, 2011.