Which Is Best: Paying Off The Lowest Balance Or Highest Interest Rate Debts First?

by Hank Coleman

Paying Off The Lowest Balance Or Highest Interest First There are a couple of thoughts on how you should pay off your debt. Should you pay off your debts with the lowest balance or highest interest first?

Do you pay off your credit card and other debt by throwing all of your available resources and free cash flow at the debt with the highest interest rate? Or, do you attack the credit cards or lenders with the lowest balance first?

While many financial planners can argue both rationales, you should know the differences so that you can make the best decision for yourself based on your individual circumstances.

The Benefit Of Paying Off The Highest Interest Rate First

A vast majority of financial experts recommend people paying off the debt with the highest interest rate first. This makes sense when you think about it.

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If you had two debts of $10,000 each, one credit card with a 10% annual interest rate (Card A) and a second card that charges you 15% interest (Card B), it will make a lot of financial sense to tackle the debt with the highest interest rate first. In our example, Card A will charge you $1,000 in annual interest over the course of the next year while Card B will cost you $1,500 in interest.

So, if you can pay off Card B first, then you have the potential of saving $500 that you would have spent in interest payments. Those forgone interest payments can be then rolled into quickly paying down the rest of your debt.

The Thought Behind Paying Off Small Balances First

Dave Ramsey is one of the biggest proponents of paying off your smallest debt first regardless of the interest rate that the lender is charging you and saving your largest debt for last.

This is one of the prime components of his debt snowball that he discusses in his book, The Total Money Makeover. His argument is that paying off debt is just as much a mental exercise as it is a physical debt repayment.

You need those easy wins of small loan balances to pump you up and get you excited about rolling those debt payments into new, bigger loans that you need to pay off next. It is quite a satisfying feeling of getting rid of small loans that are like ankle biters that you never have to deal with again.

Pay Off The Lowest Balance Or Highest Interest First

There are a couple of thoughts on how you should pay off your debt. Should you pay off your debts with the lowest balance or highest interest first? Is one plan better than another?

Maybe there is one that is better. But, what you should realize is that the best repayment plan is the one that you stick to and finish. It may not be the plan that saves you the most money in interest payments.

Attacking your highest interest debt will be all for naught if you fall right back into debt immediately afterward or, even worse, if you never complete your debt snowball and stay in debt because you are continuously frustrated with your lack of success paying off your debt. The best debt repayment plan is the one that works for you and your family.

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About Hank Coleman

Hank Coleman is the founder of Money Q&A, an Iraq combat veteran, a Dr. Pepper addict, and a self-proclaimed investing junkie. He has written extensively for many nationally known financial websites and publications. Hank holds a Master’s Degree in Finance and a graduate certificate in personal financial planning. Email him directly at Hank[at]MoneyQandA.com.

Hank Coleman has written 581 articles on Money Q&A. Learn more about Money Q&A on Twitter @MoneyQandA and @HankColeman.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Grayson @ Debt Roundup

I am a fan of paying the highest rate first. I did this with my over $50k worth of debt. It might be difficult, but it gives you the best bang for your buck. Isn’t the goal to get our spending under control in the first place? Why would it makes sense to spend more money to pay off our debt, it just seems counter-intuitive. If you set goals, then you can stay on track.


John S @ Frugal Rules

“But, what you should realize is that the best repayment plan is the one that you stick to and finish.” I could not agree more Hank. I would tend to prefer attacking the higher rate first, but at the end of the day the important thing is knocking out your debt.



Although psychologically paying off the lowest balance first may motivate more, it makes more sence to tackle the highest interest first.


shanendoah@the dog ate my wallet

I agree you have to figure out what works best for you. I’ve used a mix strategy myself, and sometimes that has meant splitting the extra payment between a small debt and the one with the highest interest. I still get to see that little one go away fairly quickly, but I also get to see the interest I’m paying on the big one go down each month.
I’ve also recommended to people (based on their exact debts) to perhaps pay a little one off first, just to get that 0 and one less payment, but then to start in on the highest interest rate. It really does depend on the person and their exact situation and loan balances.



The only wrong answer here is: ‘there is only one right answer’.

I’m not a fan of everything Dave Ramsey says, but I lean towards his side on this one. So much of personal finance is behavioral; not everything can be solved with a spreadsheet.

So I agree that ‘The best debt repayment plan is the one that works for you and your family’ is really the best answer.


Kevin Watts

I think both methods can work. In my case my smallest debt also happened to have the highest interest rate so it worked out fine for me. But I agree, getting out of debt is as much psychological as anything else and learning to change your habits and behaviors leads you to financial success.


Brick By Brick Investing | Marvin

While I hate to agree with the infamous Dave Ramsey I have to say that I personally like paying off small debts first as it is more of a psychological success in my mind. The less people I owe the better. I agree 100% though that it all depends on the individual and their own unique situation and thought process.



I do think that it depends on the individual. I have been attacking the highest interest rate since I know that mathematically it makes the most sense. But it does become quite the slog to get through it when the balance is higher than some of the others. It would be nice emotionally to have some stuff paid off totally, but I am sticking with my plan for now.


Dylann Andre

I am rather actually paying that with the highest interest rate. This will avoid me from paying more interest which is quite high.



I would pay the higher interest rate off first, but some people get more motivation from paying off smaller balances. Do what ever keeps you motivated and gets you out of debt!


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