The Great Debt Repayment Fallacy … don't fall for it!

Everybody knows about ‘good debt’ and ‘bad debt’, right? And, we all know – and have committed to memory – Personal Finance Prime Directive # 1:

Eliminate All Bad Debt Now … Before Doing Anything Else!!!

This may be the current Personal Finance mantra, but, if you happen to subscribe to the same view, then read on because this post could be the most important piece of wealth-building advice that you will ever read!

But, first …

That simple and clear ‘PF Directive’ was the assumed premise behind a recent (and very good, I might add) post on The Simple Dollar that I want to delve into a little more deeply than usual because it brings out a critical wealth-building point that may not be obvious to all. In that post Trent said:

A reader wrote in recently:

I have kind of a weird situation with our 2 credit cards, and wanted to see what you thought. We have one card (Citi) with a total balance of $4,800. $3,800 of this is a balance transfer that is at 2.99% until paid off. The remaining $1,000 is at 13.49%. Of course, all principal payments are applied to the lower rate debt first. Our other card (Chase) has a balance of $5,700, and is at 0% until September 08, when it goes to 8.99%. Which card do you think is best to “attack” first?

After reading this email, I thought it would be a good time to take a more general look at comparing the debts you owe as well as how to construct a healthy debt repayment plan.

Trent then proceeded to outline a very good and pragmatic approach to dealing with these, and any other, debts … a plan that involved: 

A few sheets of paper and a pen; the latest statement for every single debt; making the first list; ordering all of the debts by their current interest rate; looking for ways to reduce the rates, focusing most strongly on the highest current one; when you’ve reduced rates, making a new list reflecting the changes; dealing debts that are set to adjust in the future; directing all of your extra payments towards the top debt on the list; when a debt vanishes, crossing it off and feeling good about it; updating the list when you acquire a new debt; and, updating the list when one of your debts adjusts to a new rate

Before I weigh in on this, let me ask you a Very Important Question:

Do you really just want to be debt free or do you want to be rich?

I know that sounds self-evident, but stick with me … if you just want to be in the top 5% of the US population and retire on $1,000,000 in, say, 15 years then by all means, do the Dave Ramsey, Suze Orman, and/or Oprah ‘debt diets’:

That is, save and be debt free (including your own home) … whoohee! … by the time you ‘retire’ [read: work part-time in Costco handing out free food-samples until you’re 75], you’ll be living on the equivalent of $15,000 today  and hoping to hell that the government can still afford to pay you social security!

It’s OK if you slavishly follow this thinking: it’s the Conventional Wisdom …

It’s just that if you want … nay, need … to be rich(er) and retire soon(er) then you’re going to need unconventionally large amounts of money in an unconventionally rapid timespan, and that’s going to take some Unconventional Wisdom!

You see, I believe that being debt free and being rich are [almost] mutually-exclusive!

This is a pretty controversial view, I should think … but, I will even go so far as to say that it is [almost] impossible to become rich without using debt: debt to fund your business (working capital finance and/or leases on equipment and/or leases on vehicles, etc.); debt to fund your real-estate investments (fixed interest mortgages and/or interest-only funding); debt to fund your stock purchases (margin lending); etc.

Hold on, all the Personal Finance writers/bloggers out there say:

We can put all of the above examples in the ‘good debt’ category and we already agree that they are OK …


But, then they always add:

… but, ‘bad debt’ is ‘consumer debt’ (credit cards, student loans, car loans, etc.) and we all know that our Number One Personal Finance Objective is to wipe Bad Debt out, right? After all, it’s not called ‘Bad’ for nothing! Right??!!

Well, not necessarily … sure you shouldn’t get yourself INTO any of this Bad Debt … but, once you have some (you naughty, failed human being, you), you need to mix it with your Good Debt and revisit Trent’s Plan with ALL of your debts in hand … both ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’.

Look at it this way, once you find yourself with a mix of both Good (appreciating and/or income-producing assets) and Bad (depreciating, consumer goods) Debts, the only things that matter are:

1. Paying off the Dollar Value of the Bad Debt as quickly as possible, and

[AJC: Here is the key … its in the “AND]

2. Paying off the highest after-tax interest rate loan off first.

So here was my advice to the person who asked the question on Trent’s post:

Interestingly, in the reader’s case (if I read correctly) his ‘consolidated’ card is at a Combined Effective Rate of only 5.2% … because he can’t attack the 13% portion until he pays off the 2.99% portion I would do the following:

1. Pay off the other card first, then

2. Buy an investment using the money that he would have paid the 5.2% debt off with …

… after all 5.2% is a very low rate of interest!

To clarify: I would not pay either card when interest rates are under the standard variable mortgage rate … I would be financing new real-estate, or paying down the mortgage on my existing (IF I’m not breaking the 20% Rule). The plan I outlined above starts when the 0% period ends … until then, pay off NEITHER card IF you have a more productive use for the money!

What does this mean for the rest of us?

i) Don’t get INTO Bad/Consumer Debt … save and pay cash for any ‘stuff’ (cars, vacations, furniture, ipods, computers, etc.) that you want.

ii) Once you do get INTO Bad/Consumer Debt … don’t be in such a hurry to get out of it; compare the cost of your Student Loans; Ultra-Low-Honeymood-Rate credit-cards; Super-Low-Suck-You-Into-Buying-More-Car-Than-You-Can-Afford Interest Rate car loans; etc. against the after-tax cost of the mortgage that you have on your house and/or investment properties (or the interest rate on your Margin Loans for your Stocks; or your Working Capital Finance for your Business; etc.).

iii) Work out a repayment plan as though you were going to pay INTO that Bad/Consumer Debt … instead, pay an equivalent amount off against your highest after-tax interest rate loan across your entire Good/Bad Debt portfolio.

iv) Reevaluate at the earlier of Quarterly (i.e. every 3 months) OR when one of the interest rates on ANY of your loans changes OR [yay!] when you have paid one of your loans off.

v) If you don’t want to (or can’t) get out of a higher-interest loan early using (iii) then compare the cost of the lowest-interest loans that you have (regardless of whether they are Good/Bad) against the current FIXED interest rates for new loan on a new investment … if LESS, buy new instead of pay off old.

Remember: The Object of Personal Finance is to end up with MORE money … the object isn’t to SAVE money, PAY off debt, BUY a house, START a business … they are all just all steps along the way.

If you want to get Rich(er) Soon(er) never, ever confuse A Means To An End with The End

… now, let the flames begin!



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