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Are You Overexposing Yourself with Your Debt Repayment Strategy?

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Don't use a debt repayment strategy blindly — even if it's from a financial guru — because it could lead to overexposing your family.

bear sitting in river with his leg raised all the way up, with text overlay "dave ramsey's debt method can cause overexposure"

I love a good debt-payoff story.

In fact, during my 30-day Debt Bustin' Challenge, I took the time to research + highlight one debt payoff story a day (you can still get super inspired by these on my Debt Bustin' Challenge Pinterest Board).

That's 30 different debt-payoff stories. And I probably could have kept on going.

These are people who, mostly, were gazelle-intense about their debt payoff strategies. They did some crazy things that resulted in some crazy goodness: reaching the debt freedom promised land years earlier than their creditors wanted them to.

Yet some of them − myself included when we decided to gut our $7,600 savings account to pay down the remainder of my Sallie Mae student loan debt − got downright lucky.

Lucky that something big financially didn't happen to them while they had exposed themselves to the wilds of Africa.

Let me explain what I'm talking about.

Debt Snowball Method: Getting Gazelle Intense Exposes Yourself + Your Family

The idea behind invoking the intensity of a gazelle into your debt repayment strategy is that you will get to the other side much more quickly (especially since they can run up to 55 mph!).

Your job after that is to quickly save up an additional 3 to 6 months of living expenses in an emergency fund.

In the meantime, you're supposed to have saved up $1,000 to stave off any small emergencies while you've exposed yourself in the vast wilds of Africa.

Got that?

Step #1: $1,000 in an emergency fund

Step #2: get gazelle intense and pay off all that debt as quickly as possible

Step #3:  mitigate your exposure to those wily cheetahs by beefing up your emergency fund to a more proper 3 to 6 months' worth of expenses

Three Times When You Should Mimic a Sloth's Debt Repayment Strategy

It's a sexy plan, I gotta say.

And we mostly kept to it during our last debt repayment push to pay-off our remaining $25,000 of debt before we walked down the aisle together (though really we used a hybrid between Dave Ramsey's plan and Suze Orman's strategy).

But sometimes, it's not the most sound financial advice.

Sometimes the signs around you indicate that it would make much more sense to use all that extra money you're sending into your debts for something else instead because a nasty financial surprise might be lurking at the next water hole.

Here are three such times I'd like to point out:

  • Shaky Job Atmosphere: If things are looking a little shaky around your job − like that guy, third cubicle down on the right, is no longer there, and come to think of it, that woman you used to exchange hello's with in the hallway is no longer there, and now they're talking furloughs in the breakroom… − then you have got to stop putting all your money into your debt repayment strategy. In the event of a layoff, you have no real idea how long it will take you to secure new employment (fyi my husband and I have been laid off four times between the two of us, and each time it took between 3-5 months to find new employment). In the meantime, you're overexposing yourself by taking all of your money − money that can be used to pay immediate bills like food + the mortgage − and sending it out the door. Another word of caution here: if you have any 401(k) loans, then you might want to funnel money to those instead. Check out my layoff empowerment kit + free checklist for more info on why your 401(k) loan gets quirky post-employment + lots of other things you need to be aware of.
  • You Find Out You've Got a Little One on the Way: Having all of your debt (especially all of your non-mortgage debt) paid off before a little one comes into your world is absolutely awesome. What's not so awesome is only having $1,000 in an emergency fund for their arrival. Extra costs are coming, I assure you. Things you couldn't even think about are coming. For example, in our own case, we paid close to $10,000 out of pocket after health insurance due to unforeseen circumstances…and we had thought saving an extra $5,000 would be plenty. Then those unforeseen medical circumstances cascaded into me not being able to breastfeed, which meant formula costs of about $150/month we weren't expecting. And it just snowballs from there.
  • You Find Out $1,000 Isn't Enough to Cover Your Insurance Deductibles: Take a minute to add up all of your insurance deductibles on your various policies. This includes things like flood insurance, car insurance, homeowner's insurance, etc. Does the total equal more than $1,000 (heck, one policy alone might equal more than $1,000)? Then it's time to save up more in your emergency fund. Trust me, you're talking to a person who has faced several insurance deductibles in the last few years. Things can and will happen, and if you don't have enough to cover the deductible in order to do the work you need done…well let's just say you're overexposing yourself.

I'm all about gazelle intensity. I'm all about paying off your debt ASAP (a lump sum payoff is awesome!). But I'm also smart, and there's more strategy to money than what meets the eye. Think about your own personal situation, and if you get that little feeling in your gut that a herd of jackals is coming around your water hole, well then it might be time to modify your debt repayment strategy.

Other Debt Elimination Strategies to Consider to Become Debt Free

As mentioned, my husband and I used a hybrid approach to our debt payoff strategy. It really worked well for us, and I suggest you also create a mix of your own debt repayment strategy based upon what's available.

Here are the other debt elimination strategies for you to consider when getting out of debt:

Suze Orman's Avalanche (aka, “Interest Payment Minimizer)

What: Detach yourself from the emotions of debt and pay off debt in the most logical, interest-saving way using the Avalanche strategy. You simply pay off your debts in the order of highest to lowest interest rates, regardless of the balance amounts (look on your credit card bills for an interest rate – or call your creditors).

How this Strategy Works: Pay minimums on every debt owed. Throw any extra cash toward the amount of debt with the highest interest rate. Once you knock that debt out, you then take all of the extra money + minimum payment amount you were throwing towards the first debt, and roll it into the payment of the next highest-interest debt (thus creating an avalanche of money as you travel down your debt payoff list).

By doing this, you will get rid of your most expensive debt first, giving less of your hard-earned money to creditors in the form of interest paid.

Snapshot: Pay debts from highest to smallest interest rate percentage being charged.

Adam Baker's Tsunami (aka, “Offload Emotional Baggage First”)

What: You’re in the heat of August. Perhaps the A/C isn’t keeping up, or you are on the last quarter mile of a jog. Either way, it’s hot. You take your hat, a note pad, a fan, or whatever physical object you can find and fan your face. It feels better, even briefly. Yet you’ve undoubtedly heard that doing so — fanning yourself — does not cool you down because the benefits are absorbed by the energy it takes to do the fanning. You continue flapping away anyway. Why? Because even though scientifically speaking flapping air into your face makes you hotter, not cooler, it provides instantaneous relief.

Paying down debt using the tsunami strategy works the same way. It’s not about the math; we all know 2 – 3 = a negative number, and most of us make enough income to permanently take us off of the debt treadmill. Yet millions of Americans are in debt. Why? Because for many, it’s not simple math. It’s a mental and emotional game.

How this Strategy Works: Pay minimums on every debt owed. Then figure out shedding which of your debts will give you the most lift and will relieve you of the most emotional pain (could be a debt from an ended relationship or marriage, from a family member lording it over you, business line of credit on a business idea that sunk, paying on a car that was wrecked, from a big mistake, etc.). These emotionally-charged debts become the ones you tackle first, no matter what the balance amount nor the interest rate is compared with your other debts.

Offloading some of this emotional baggage — gaining instead validation, repaired relationships, and all of the other things you feel you are lacking because of these particular debt obligations — will give you the strength and hope you need to tackle the other debts when the time comes.

After you list the debts that have caused you pain and there are no others that bother you, list the remaining debts in order from highest interest rate to the lowest interest rate. Pay the minimum on each of the debts, and then throw any extra money you have towards paying off the debt that is most emotionally-charged (first on your list).

Once that debt is paid off, take any extra payments you were making + minimum payments on it and roll it into the next debt on your list. In essence, you are making a “repayment tsunami” that keeps getting larger and larger after each debt payoff to ram into the next debt owed.

Snapshot: Pay debts from highest to lowest emotional load first, and highest to lowest interest rate after.

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Amanda L. Grossman is a Certified Financial Education Instructor, Plutus Foundation Grant Recipient, and founder of Frugal Confessions. Over the last 10 years, her money work helping people with how to save money and how to manage money has been featured in Kiplinger, Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Business Insider, LifeHacker, Woman's World, Woman's Day, ABC 13 Houston, Keybank, and more. Read more here.

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