The Debt Snowball Method Is Perfect If You’re Motivated by Quick Wins

Two people high five after doing taking care of their finances.
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Two major methods dominate the debt repayment sphere: the debt snowball and the debt avalanche.

One says you should pay off debts with the highest interest rate first. That’s the debt avalanche method.

The other says to pay off your smallest balances first so that you can enjoy quick victories and build confidence.

That’s called the debt snowball method — and here’s how to use it.

What Is the Debt Snowball Method?

Popularized by money guru Dave Ramsey, the debt snowball method involves paying off one credit card or loan balance at a time, starting with the smallest balance first until you’re totally debt-free.

This debt snowball strategy is perfect for people who are motivated by quick wins.

However, there’s a downside: You end up paying more interest long term.

Many people disagree with the concept of paying more interest for quicker wins. Why would you pay off smaller balances and let those interest mongers sit?

Because you’re not an algorithm: You’re a human being. It’s important to pick a debt management strategy that works for you.

Whether you want to get rid of high-interest credit card debt or your monthly mortgage payment, using the snowball debt repayment method can help you achieve financial freedom.

The debt snowball method helps you take that difficult first step in paying off debt — and then the next step. And the one after that.

How to Use the Debt Snowball Method

Here’s how the debt snowball method works in five simple steps.

1. List All Your Debts From Smallest to Largest

Start by listing all your outstanding debts. Disregard the interest rates.

Then, order them from the smallest balance to the largest. This can be done on paper, a spreadsheet, an app or in a handy-dandy debt snowball calculator.

Include all the debt accounts you want to pay off quickly.

We recommend:

  • Credit card debt
  • Student loans
  • Personal loans
  • Auto loans
  • Unpaid medical bills
  • Mortgage-related debt
  • Any other stuff debt collectors keep calling you about

Don’t include debts that are outside of (or approaching) the statute of limitations for responsibility. After a certain amount of time has passed — usually at least three years, but it varies by state — creditors can’t sue you for unpaid debt.

2. Budget to Pay the Minimum Amount on Every Debt

To start a debt snowball plan, you’ll ideally pay the minimum balance across all your bills, so figure out the minimum due to each debt.

If you’re struggling to get out of debt, take a look at your budget and see where you can cut back your discretionary spending. Look for ways to earn more money on the side as well.

Try every month to lower your spending and increase your income. You’ll need that extra money for the next step.

3. Put All Extra Money Toward Your Smallest Debt

Once you’ve budgeted minimum payments for all or most of your debt, put any extra toward the first loan on the list — the one with the lowest balance.

That means you’ll be paying the minimum plus your designated extra on that debt. Let’s say $50 plus $150 extra for a total payment of $200.

4. Once It’s Paid Off, Add That Total to the Next Smallest Debt

By starting with your smallest debt, you’ll theoretically finish paying the balance off faster than you could have paid any other.

But don’t stress if it feels like even the tiniest debt is taking forever to pay off: There’s a learning curve to the snowball method, and most people start off slow.

Once you do pay off the smallest debt, take every penny you were putting toward that debt and add it to the monthly payment for your next smallest debt.

That means you’ll be paying the first debt’s minimum payment ($50), the second debt’s minimum payment ($100, for example) and your designated extra monthly dollar amount ($150) all toward the second debt. Now you’re making a $300 monthly payment instead of $100.

Continue paying that amount until the second debt is paid off. Depending on the size and interest rate of your second smallest debt, you could see that balance dry up even quicker than the first.

5. Repeat

Once your second debt is paid off, apply the debt snowball strategy to all other debts.

For the third debt account, pay the total of the first debt’s minimum payment ($50), the second debt’s minimum payment ($100), the third debt’s minimum payment ($125, for example) and the designated extra every month ($150). That’s how you snowball your way into putting $425 toward that debt each month.

It’s a simple concept, but it’s not easy. That’s why little wins along the way are so helpful.

If you’re skeptical about paying a little extra interest but know you need quick wins, give the debt snowball a try. Once this debt management strategy is in place, you’ll see how negligible that extra interest really is.

What the Debt Snowball Method Looks Like in Real Life

Sometimes it’s easier to see concepts like this played out in numbers. So let’s try an example.

Let’s say you have:

  • A Visa card with a $2,000 balance, an 18% interest rate and a $40 monthly payment.
  • A Mastercard with a $7,000 balance, a 24% interest rate and a $150 monthly payment.
  • A car loan with an $8,000 balance, a 4.5% interest rate and a $285 monthly payment.
  • A student loan with a $10,000 balance, a 3.86% interest rate and a $125 monthly payment.

You’ve cut your expenses and taken on overtime at work, so you have $1,000 each month to repay debt.

Your minimum payments add up to $600 each month. This means you’ve got $400 extra to put toward your debt snowball.

Debt No. 1: Months 1-5

The first debt you’ll tackle is the $2,000 Visa. You’ll make the monthly minimum payment of $40 and an additional $400 payment — for a total of $440 each month — while making minimum payments to everything else.


Payment breakdown

Debt Account Balance Monthly Minimum You Pay

Visa

$2,000

$40

$440

Mastercard

$7,000

$150

$150

Car loan

$8,000

$285

$285

Student loans

$10,000

$125

$125

By putting $440 toward the Visa every month, you can pay that baby off in five months and still have extra to throw to debt No. 2 in month five.

One down, three to go!

Since you’ve been paying the minimum on the other three debts, you’ll accrue interest on them, but not much. After five months, you’re left with approximately:

  • $6,950 on your Mastercard
  • $6,700 on your car loan
  • $9,530 on your student loans

Your monthly minimum payments for those debts will total $560. You still have $1,000 budgeted for debt payments, so your extra will now equal $440. (See how it snowballs?)

The next debt to tackle is the Mastercard.

Debt No. 2: Months 6-19

You’ll make the monthly minimum payment of $150 and the additional $440 payment toward your Mastercard — for a total of $590 per month — while continuing to make minimum payments to the other two.


Payment breakdown

Debt Account Balance Monthly Minimum You Pay

Mastercard

$6,950

$150

$590

Car loan

$6,700

$285

$285

Student loans

$9,530

$125

$125

At this pace, you’ll have your next debt knocked out 14 months after your first! A total of 19 months is way better than the 137 months Mastercard wanted you to spend making minimum payments.

Nineteen months may not seem that long in the grand scheme of things, but it is when you’re funneling $400 to a credit card company every month instead of taking trips or buying the latest gadgets.

That’s why having that first win after five months is so powerful.

Debt No. 3: Months 20-23

There may have been a lag in the last year, but this is where the debt snowball picks up momentum.

Assuming you haven’t found ways to save more money and haven’t increased your income with any raises or side hustles, you still have $1,000 to put toward your car and student loans each month. Your minimum monthly payments are now $410, leaving you with an extra $590.

You’ll make the minimum monthly payment of $285 plus the additional $590 payment on your car, while continuing to make minimum payments to your student loans.


Payment breakdown

Debt Account Balance Monthly Minimum You Pay

Car loan

$3,000

$285

$875

Student loans

$8,200

$125

$125

And just like that, in four months, it’s time to make your final payment. Remember when it took five months to pay off a $2,000 credit card? Now you can pay off a $3,000 car loan balance in four!

Debt No. 4: Months 24-31

Finally, you’ll hit the student loans with the full $1,000 per month until they’re paid off.


Payment breakdown

Debt Account Balance Monthly Minimum You Pay

Student loans

$7,800

$125

$1,000

And in eight months — 31 months from when you began — you’ll be completely debt-free!

That’s $27,000 of debt repayment in two and a half years.

At first, it probably felt like it was going to take 12 years to get out of debt. And if you’d stuck with minimum payments, it would have. But now you’re debt-free with a budget that has an extra $1,000 of discretionary income each month.

There are benefits to tackling debt yourself. You won’t need the help of a credit counseling agency. You’ll also save money and avoid paying upfront fees for a debt consolidation loan or debt management plan.

Time for a vacation.

Debt Snowball vs. Debt Avalanche

You’ll see that the debt in the above example accrued $2,962 in interest.

The same debt portfolio paid off with the debt avalanche method would be paid off in the same number of payments, but you’d pay approximately $2,797 in interest. This means using the debt snowball method will cost you an extra $165.

While the debt avalanche method offers interest savings, you’d have to wait over a year for your first highest-interest debt to be paid off.

So, why choose the debt snowball? It’s about motivation.

If you use the avalanche debt repayment method, you might be paying off large debt with high interest rates for a while before you can knock it off your list. It can feel like you’ll never be done paying off debt.

The debt snowball method lets you see results more quickly — and your list of debt gets shorter. If you’re like many people who have trouble staying focused, this can be the boost you need to keep you going.

A graphic comparing the debt snowball and debt avalanche methods.
Elyse Schwanke/The Penny Hoarder

Dana Miranda and Rachel Christian are certified educators in personal finance. Miranda is also the founder of Healthy Rich, a platform for inclusive, budget-free financial education. Christian is a senior staff writer for The Penny Hoarder.


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