Look at the latest articles on the wire about paying off debt and you’d think we’ve stumbled across the greatest discovery since Einstein declared that e=MC2. How do I determine which loan to pay off first? The good news is the cash flow index method is a tool that makes the process simple and effective. Read on…
Debt sucks. And anymore, we get saddled with negative figures for a whole host of mainly well-intended things. Mortgage? Good. Student loan debt? Good.
Getting by for a spell after a layoff or health issue? Good (assuming all other options are exhausted.) We then have the mix of dumb debt that gets us into a spiral, like fancy new cars, jet skis, trips to Cancun, and shopping mall mania credit card debt.
How to Pay off Debt If You’re Living Paycheck to Paycheck?
The psychology of the matter is far from easy. This is where your brain gets in the way of, well, your brain. Many of us stumble quickly out of the gates after college or starting fresh in the workforce. We have a low paying hourly job, or, a collection of part-time jobs that pay just enough to allow us to share rent with a roommate or two.
Life is still good because we’re young, and we subconsciously operate as if the future will take care of itself. This is a common trap and one that I’ve personally fallen into. It’s the reason I’m cramming for early retirement in my mid-40s, as opposed to my mid-30s.
I have to believe a lot of the “advice” the personal finance community pushes is a hard pill to swallow for many. We’re not all in our 20s or 30s anymore. Indeed, it’s never too late to start, but the golden period of opportunity is when your driver’s license age starts with a 2 or 3 (and is double digits, unless you’re Baby Boss).
If you are starting late on this journey, and you’ve figured out how to chuck the silliness of consumerism out the window, you can, as J.D. Roth would say, “Turbo Charge” your situation. When I got my head out of the sand about five years ago, my “turbocharge” was to fire up a rental property business.
And wouldn’t you know it, the lessons and discipline I gained there came in handy at work, where I started to apply pragmatic problem solving on the job. Raises and opportunities to move up the ladder soon followed. Notice I said “opportunities” right there. I’m still angling hard on that elusive promotion…
Bottom line: Paying off debt is a straightforward exercise that requires persistence. Stick with it. No hole is too deep to climb out of. Patience and consistency will get you to the finish line when it comes to paying off large sums of debt. Others have done it under very difficult circumstances. Learn from their example.
Debt Band-aid: Home Equity Lines of Credit
Sometimes homeownership does not suck. That one time back in 2001, when I got laid off for being a punk of an employee? Thank goodness I was able to take out a home equity line of credit for $30,000. Were it not for that, I’m not sure how I would’ve paid for groceries, much less the mortgage (during a year of nothing but grad school tuition bills).
What I soon learned after landing my next job, was that I could use a home equity line to pay down other, higher interest debts. A lot of people assume you can only use a “HELOC” for home improvements. Honestly, the bank doesn’t care what you use it for, because they have your bee-hind in a sling already with that anchor of a primary mortgage. “Go ahead, good sir, take a cruise with that HELOC. Just be sure to make your monthly interest-only payments!”
At any rate, I started to consolidate some of my stupid credit card debts and higher interest student loans on that HELOC. The interest rate was much lower. And double-bonus, the interest in HELOCs is tax-deductible. (At least it used to be. I think the new tax law of 2018 scrapped this deduction?)
Long-term, the ideal strategy is to keep your HELOC open but untapped, like your emergency fund. If you’re a crazy son of a gun like me, you could bend that rule a little and use it to make the down-payment on a rental property or five. This is the fun leverage part of the debt that you should tread lightly into – but it is a pretty lucrative approach if you do your homework.
Killing Sacred Cows
I’ve given up on using interest rates to dictate which loans to pay back first. I use the cash flow index instead. Why?
Several years back, before I got hooked on the idea of early-retirement, I read the book Killing Sacred Cows: Overcoming the Financial Myths That Are Destroying Your Prosperity by Garrett B. Gunderson. I highly recommend reading this book.
The reason? Oddly enough, it isn’t because most (or even half) of what’s laid out is worth following. Instead, the book gets you to think about your financial outlook in a whole different way. The main tenets are as follows:
- The 401K stinks. It can’t be counted on to generate enough wealth over the long haul. The market is too volatile, and administrative fees will eat you alive.
- Real estate is king. You need to get in on the real estate game for serious wealth generation.
- Full life insurance is hard to beat if you want to protect yourself and your family’s interests, while also having an invested source of capital for, you guessed it, real estate.
- With an abundance mindset, anything is possible. You need to shed the scarcity mindset if you want to get rich.
As for me, I follow 2 and 4 and ignore 1 and 3. I figure that a 401K invested in low-fee index funds, at just enough percent to meet the employer match, is a safe enough bet. As for life insurance, I hold a term policy through work at the moment. I may add one after early retirement. But for now, I’m not convinced a full life insurance policy is worth it for anyone, frankly.
Cash Flow Index Example
Wouldn’t you know it, Gunderson suggests tackling bad debts with the mighty Cash Flow Index. Here’s how it works:
- To determine the Cash Flow Index (CFI) for each of your debts, divide a loan balance by its minimum payment.
- For example, assume your car payment is $450 a month, and you owe $30,000. The CFI is $30,000 / $450 = 66.666. You can make that 67, rounded up. The interest rate on this loan is 1.0%. Because you got suckered into that sweet Labor Day weekend sale at Jimmy’s Auto World, didn’t you?
- Now, let’s take your student loans for a similar spin. Assume you owe $85,000 and the payments are $120 a month. Oh, and the interest rate on this loan is 4.5%. But CFI calculations ignore interest rates, so we get $85,000 / $120 = 708.
Quite a difference, eh? Guess which one you should focus on paying down first? Not the one with the higher rate, like you, may have heard before. Nope. Always tackle the debt with the lowest CFI first – the car payment, in this example.
I’ve used the CFI for every debt we’ve held for the last ten years or so. There have been a few:
- We use our home equity line of credit to cover the down payment on rental properties.
- Auto loans. Both cars have since been paid in full.
- Student loans. Who doesn’t have those?
- Primary mortgage.
In each instance, I compare the CFI of all our debts and make extra payments on the lowest scoring one first.
The reason CFI prioritization works well for us is it frees up cash flow much more quickly than otherwise, by simply using interest rates as a guide. There’s a bit of a snowball effect when you go from lowest CFI, to the next, and the next.
Gunderson proposes that a CFI of 100 or higher is an “efficient” loan. These are the kinds of loans you can ignore for a spell until you have tackled your lower-scoring obligations. Our home mortgage is at a CFI of 165.
A technically smarter move would be to put any extra income towards higher-yielding investments, as opposed to paying off the mortgage. But this is a long-term cash flow play for us. At early retirement, we plan to avoid as many recurring monthly payments as possible. Which is cash flow smart.
The Cash Flow Index Method Is Super Simple!
It’s quite simple, even in the most complicated circumstances. You figure out which debt is forcing you to pay the highest percentage of its balance in minimum payments. Slay those first.
In other words, if you have a $10,000 car loan balance with a $400 monthly payment, that’s a score of 25. This method is called the cash flow index and I use it myself.
If you have a $100,000 mortgage balance with a $900 monthly payment, that’s a score of 111. You just divide the balance by the payment. The lower the score, the more aggressively you attack that particular debt.
But what if the interest rate on the mortgage is 5.4% while the car loan is only 2.9%? Sigh… It doesn’t matter. You’re not going to benefit by arbitraging marginal rates when you need CASH FLOW.
An overriding rule in all of this: Pay off credit cards FIRST. They are the devil. You can practically smell the brimstone when you open a new statement envelope. In most cases, the interest rate is 12% or higher.
Set aside the cash flow index for now, and tackle each credit card in order of descending rates. Those blokes come pretty close to billing interest-only minimum payments, at 2%-5% of the total balance.
For non-credit card debt, use the Cash Flow Index. For credit cards, pay those first, and prioritize by interest rate. Easy-peasy!
Net Worth vs Cash Flow
One of the fairly ironic aspects of “early retirement” (read, “aspires to laziness in a hammock”) is the hard work, dedication, and sacrifice required to reach the goal. Your company doesn’t want to see its best and brightest walk away unexpectedly. Even the ones peeking at his or her financial spreadsheet while on conference calls.
Following the early retirement community, you might get the sense that Net Worth is the only key indicator. Some even publicize their net worth as a means to keep feeding their audiences some sort of magic marker for success.
Don’t get me wrong, Net Worth is a helpful indicator of how well-positioned you are from an asset vs. liability perspective. However, you’d find it difficult to live off of assets that don’t produce income streams (automobiles, homesteads, jewelry, 401Ks, 529s, etc.) in retirement.
Cash flow is the net amount of cash and cash-equivalents being transferred into and out of a business. At the most fundamental level, a company’s ability to create value for shareholders is determined by its ability to generate positive cash flows, or more specifically, maximize long-term free cash flow.
Operate your personal finances with discipline and curiosity. Focus and learn while you chip away at debt and find new ways to increase income (cash flow).
Part of our plan is to sock away about 18 months of income into taxable index funds towards the end of my corporate career. We would then withdraw those dollars slowly over the next 13 years until age 60 when the 401K can be tapped.
This cash flow is our “bridge funding” that allows some amount of flex in our budget. Unlike other extremely frugal early retirees, we expect to need close to $60K annually to cover our expenses and allow for certain luxuries along the way.
Real Estate Investments and Cash Flow
Our cash flow cash cow has been real estate rentals. We have four single-family homes in operation that each yield about $500 per month in net income. At tax time, the depreciation on each rental is treated as a deduction, as are maintenance costs.
The rentals we own are fairly close to us. We’re willing to learn and apply our elbow grease, so we’ve been able to avoid property management costs. In a future post, I’ll share how we manage our rentals in a highly passive manner.
One of the best reasons to get into real estate in the first place is the cash flow it can generate if done RIGHT. There are several options to explore, whether you go with single-family home rental (my preferred, for passive, low hassle tenants) or even vacation rentals (more intensive because you’re the host, but highly lucrative if located in high-demand areas).
Examine your budget and what do you see? Most of the line items fall on the “expense” side. You’ll be hard-pressed to whittle that list down too far. There are discretionary categories that can be eliminated or reduced.
Even the basic needs deserve a healthy amount of scrutiny. It can be easy to fall into a lull when it comes to monthly recurring expenses. After many months of simply paying the internet and cell phone bills without a second thought, I finally took the time to call our Internet provider to get a reduced rate.
We switched our cell service to Ting. Now our cell service for two lines is $40 a month. Savings like these come in handy when your cash flow is dramatically reduced at retirement. Stay vigilant.
While I do my best to ignore net worth, I plan to employ four cash-flow building tools: a business (rentals, blogs, etc.), part-time jobs, investment income, and cost avoidance. Some interesting decisions could come your way if you choose to focus on cash flow over net worth. For instance, is it more important to pay off the high-interest loan first?
Or, the one with the highest impact on your cash flow? Consider this when the competing rates are within a few percentage points, and you know you need the cash.
Regardless of what debt pay off method you choose, remember to avoid falling into the trap of catching up with the Kardashians. That’s the kind of relationship with money that’ll keep you spinning on that hamster wheel day job for decades later that you’d like to be.
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