Despite the fact that it starts out as our money in the first place, it’s all too easy to think of your tax refund as “bonus” money. Once you know that check or direct deposit is on its way, you may be tempted to start daydreaming of a new big screen or that oft-postponed family vacation. Before you start shopping or packing, however, you should consider the positive impact that refund can have on your bottom line, particularly if you have outstanding debt.
Once you’ve made the (wise, smart, excellent) decision to use your refund to tackle your current debt, you’ll need to determine the best way to distribute the funds. When it comes to prioritizing debts for repayment, there are two main methods that experts recommend, each with a fun winter-themed name: the avalanche method and the snowball method. While both debt prioritization methods can give you the desired results (i.e., no more debt) the methods may vary in the amount of time it takes to reach debt freedom, as well as the total cost to get there.
The Avalanche Method
In general, the avalanche method is most commonly recommended because it will save you the most money during the repayment process. That’s because you’ll essentially be paying off your debts in the order of expense, with the most expensive debt being addressed first.
To follow the avalanche method, you’ll need to list your debts in order of the interest they charge, starting with the debt with the highest interest rate, then the next-highest rate, and so on. For example, any cash advance or short-term loans or high-interest credit cards will likely be at the top of the list, and lower-interest installment loans or introductory 0% APR credit cards will be at the bottom of the list.
While you’ll need to make your minimum required payment for all your debts, you’ll focus any extra money — in this case, your tax refund — on the debt with the highest APR. If your tax refund is enough to pay off your highest-interest debt, apply the remainder to the debt with the next-highest APR.
As you pay off each debt and cross it off the list, use the money you were putting toward that debt to pay off the next debt on the list. By the time you reach your final debt, which will be the one with the lowest interest rate, you’ll have freed up funds from your previous debts and should be able to pay it off fairly quickly.
The Snowball Method
Although the snowball method isn’t the most cost effective of the two prioritization plans, research has shown that it may be the more successful method for many consumers. This is thanks to the motivational boost you get from paying off a debt and crossing it off your list.
To follow the snowball method, you’ll need to list your debts in order of how much you owe for each debt, starting with the smallest debt, then the next-smallest debt, and so on. So, if you had three debts with amounts of $5,000, $1,300, and $2,700, you’d pay them off starting with the $1,300 debt, then the $2,700, then the $5,000.
As with the avalanche method, you’ll need to make your minimum required payments for all of your debts, but you’ll focus any extra funds — including your income tax refund — on the smallest debt first. If your tax refund is enough to pay off this debt entirely, apply the remaining refund to the next debt on the list (and so on).
By focusing on your smallest debt first, you’ll be able to pay it off very quickly, giving you a feeling of progress and an important boost in motivation, which can help you stay on track and keep to your debt repayment plan. As you pay off debts, roll the money you were spending on each finished debt into the next debt. By the time you reach your last and largest debt, you’ll likely be applying a significant amount of money to that debt, making paying it down a realistic idea (rather than a simply overwhelming one).
Your Best Method Will Depend on You
While the avalanche and snowball methods can both be effective ways to prioritize your debt and start paying it off, every consumer’s financial situation is unique. The best way to use your tax refund to pay down debt may involve a combination of the two methods, or may not be according to either method. So long as you are actively working to pay down your debt — and are making at least your minimum payments to avoid credit damage — the specific method you choose is less important than the fact you are working toward debt freedom.