“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.” – Dale Carnegie
Sometimes facts don’t matter. Some people believe in “alternative facts!” One conclusion that can be drawn from this phenomenon is that people are humans and often times our decisions are dictated by our emotions rather than by logic or facts. Facts don’t matter as much as emotion does. Stirring up strong passionate emotions like anger, fear, outrage, and on the more positive side, love, inspiration, and hope will often trump facts, logic and math.
A friend of mine, who taught a financial literacy class, talked about Dave Ramsey’s snowball method of paying off debt to his students. With this method, you pay off the debt with the smallest balance first and then move on to the next one with the smallest balance. “The math doesn’t make sense,” I argued, and countered that you should pay the account with the highest interest rate first to save on the interest you pay. My friend explained that while math may be on my side, his experience told him that paying off small balances motivated people to continue on the path to debt freedom. What good are facts and logic if someone gives up on making those extra payments because it seems like such an uphill battle? We need to win the small battles to win the war.
In a similar financial debate, many often ask whether you should pay off debt first or invest. In a recent post from the Big Law Investor, Josh asked whether you should pay down an auto loan of 1.9% or invest. I always thought my decisions to be fact-based, rational, and logical. I always came down on the investing side and wondered why others chose to pay off low interest debts so quickly. If you look at the math, it would seem pretty easy to beat a 1.9% return.
In the comments section, one reader said, “In my experience, most folks don’t actually invest the difference and /or increase their lifestyle since they have the low-cost debt.” Josh replied, saying that lifestyle creep occurs without you even realizing it when there’s “extra cash sloshing” and that you’re probably tricking yourself into thinking you’re actually “investing the difference”. I started to think about what was said and realized that this was true with me. I had been tricking myself into thinking that I was investing the difference when that wasn’t really the case.
My student loan interest rates are low and I haven’t made any extra payments to them since paying off the high interest ones. I also recently bought a car with an auto loan even higher than the rate posed by Big Law Investor’s blog post (It’s at 2.9%). I didn’t pay it off either, but am I using that extra money that I have to invest? Not really. I keep thinking I will use that money to invest but just haven’t done it yet. Maybe I’ll buy another rental property, but maybe I won’t. However, in the 10 years that I’ve had my student loans, did I invest the difference because I didn’t put many extra payments towards those loans. I would say yes, to a certain extent, but it’s hard to say how much extra I invested. And I think it is highly likely that much of that excess cash also went to lifestyle creep instead.
After this realization, I think I’ll be taking some cash I have on hand and combine it with my tax refund this year to make extra payments on my auto loan. Speaking of tax refunds, I used to think it was silly for people to want big tax refunds. Getting a large tax refund is giving the government an interest free loan right? And having money now is better than getting the money later, so why not take the money now by increasing your withholding? It made sense, but when I owed money to the IRS a few years back, I was very upset. But shouldn’t I have been happy? The government had given ME an interest free loan, and I just had to pay it back. It didn’t feel like a win to me and I had to allocate some savings to cover the tax bill. With my higher paycheck throughout that year, did I save and invest that money? I’m pretty sure the answer to that is “NO.” After that painful lesson, I changed my withholding and have been getting a tax refund ever since. And now, every year after I get that tax refund, I make contributions to my Roth IRA account as well as my wife’s IRA account, contribute to our son’s 529 plan, pad our savings or make extra payments towards debt (mortgage/student loan).
Money is more about emotions than the numbers. And as disciplined and logical as I may think I am, I am still human. I’m not a robot analyzing every decision, inputting the numbers and running an algorithm to determine the best and most optimized choice. I have to remember that when making financial decisions and in giving financial advice to others.