How to snowflake your debt

A debt snowflake is a way of paying off debt that immediately captures small savings for use toward outstanding bills. Here's how to do it.

Nam Y. Huh/AP/File
Snowflakes stick to a car window Tuesday, April 5, 2016, in Brookfield, Wis. A debt snowflake is a way of paying off debt that immediately captures small savings for use toward outstanding bills.

A debt snowflake is a way of paying off debt that immediately captures small savings for use toward outstanding bills.

It sounds a lot like other strategies that aim to speed the arrival of your debt-free date, but it’s different:

  • In a debt snowball, you aim any extra money at the smallest bill first, racking up a psychological victory as you repurpose that payment toward the next-smallest debt.
  • In a debt avalanche, you go after the highest-interest debts first, decreasing the total interest paid. It’s less rewarding in the short term but more efficient.

In both of those strategies, you are using money you have especially budgeted for debt payoff.

The snowflake method, on the other hand, finds tiny, day-to-day savings and uses them to make your zero-debt day come even sooner. It’s compatible with either the snowball or avalanche strategies. Like snowflakes, tiny savings collected over time can have a big impact. And you have to be quick to capture them: Snowflakes disappear fast.

Make the most out of found money

If you’ve budgeted carefully, you may think there are no more savings to be had.

But the small amounts of money you can snowflake toward debt (or an emergency fund) can come from less obvious sources like:

  • Splitting a 12-inch sub with a friend when you would have otherwise ordered your own 6-inch sub (potential savings: about $2!).
  • Discovering a $20 bill in a coat pocket (and before you take clothes to the cleaners or donate them, please check all the pockets).
  • An unexpected rebate check in the mail.
  • A yard sale.
  • Payment for jobs that are outside your normal budget (lawn mowing, baby-sitting, pet care, housesitting).

You get the idea. We are not talking about big amounts of money here.

Nor are we talking about money accounted for in your budget; this is found money only. And you don’t want to divert the money you have allotted for your own discretionary spending — your budget won’t work without it.

The idea is to benefit from these small cash surprises instead of letting them slip through your fingers, without even the tiniest contribution toward your financial goals such as consolidating and paying off credit card debt.

Capturing little bits of cash

How do you manage to keep such small savings from simply disappearing?

  • If you keep a change jar, you can put the extra savings there and use that money to help pay down debt at the end of the month. The important thing is to make sure it’s not in your pocket or wallet, available to spend. If you’re depositing cash, be sure the bank’s locations are convenient to you.
  • If it’s money unspent in your bank account, some banks or credit unions may allow you to transfer even tiny amounts from checking to savings. (The last thing you want to do is to accidentally trigger a fee for excessive transfers — and many financial institutions have them — because you moved $3.21 from checking to savings.) Otherwise you can try grouping the tiny transfers together, say, once a week, or write a check to yourself.
  • If you are using snowflakes to make a loan disappear early, be sure that extra payments are acceptable to the lender and that you can have the extra cash applied toward principal.
  • If you are making “micropayments” on credit cards, be sure you won’t incur charges on either end of the transaction.

Bev O’Shea is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Twitter: @BeverlyOShea. This article first appeared at NerdWallet.

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