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People argue about the best way to pay down debt.
Your best strategy might boil down to brain chemistry, according to new research from the growing field of neuroeconomics.
One key issue seems to be whether you’re a “delay of gratification” person or not, says financial expert Jean Chatzky. More impulsive types tend to prefer rewards that come more quickly (which makes sense), while less impulsive people find it easier to wait for what they want.
In terms of your debt payback plan, “it pays to work with your wiring,” says Chatzky. If swift rewards keep you motivated, use the so-called snowball method (paying off smallest debts first) for quick victories.
If you can tolerate a wait, it may be better for you to tackle bigger or higher-interest debt first, knowing that you’ll get that fat payoff even if you have to wait for it.
To find out how your brain works, take our three-question quiz:
- Would you rather get $20 right now, $25 in one week, or $30 in a month?
- $20 now
- $25 in one week
- $30 in one month
- Can you picture what your life will be like once you’re debt-free?
- No—it almost seems like that day will never come.
- I have some trouble imagining my “future self” because my debt is a big focus now.
- Yes—it’s what keeps me motivated.
- If you found $100 on the street, what would you do with it?
- Splurge—hey, it’s free money!
- Spend no more than half and put the rest toward a bill or in my savings account.
- Use it as a chance to get ahead on a payment or boost my savings.
A = 0 points
B = 5 points
C = 10 points
If you scored 0–10 points:
You’re more of a spender than a saver—maybe even way more. You tend toward “impulse buys” and struggle with paying down debt or sticking to a budget.
Use the snowball method: pay off your smallest debts first. By making steady progress, and enjoying regular reinforcement for your efforts, you’ll train your brain to appreciate longer-term rewards. When it comes time to tackle the bigger debts, your habits will be stronger, and you’ll be motivated by the fabulous results of paying off debt.
If you scored 15–20 points:
You’re generally pretty good at saving and budgeting, but you splurge more often than you should (or fritter away cash on small expenses or sudden spending amnesia).
Use the snowball method to get started and reinforce your good habits. Pick a small debt and pay it off as quickly as you can. When that’s done, add those payments to your high-interest-rate debt. While it’ll take longer to pay off your debt, you’ll save a ton of cash over time—which will help you tackle the rest of your debt.
If you scored 25–30 points:
You know the power of delayed gratification. You’re a smart spender and planner, and you make money choices based on how they’ll affect you in the future, whether next month or next year.
Use the avalanche method to put big payments toward your debt with the highest interest rate. You can stay motivated even without “instant” results, but track your progress so you can see how much you’re saving by paying off that big debt first.
Be a brainiac. How did you score on our debt quiz? How do you plan to change the way you pay your debt?