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What Is Financial Triage and How Do You Perform It?

By David Bakke

financial triageAs I was doing a little research for this article that I’ve been wanting to write about, I never knew that the term “financial triage” was a real term and had an actual definition. I had always thought it was coined by people in the debt management field. I think it has something to do with hospital patients and their ability to pay their bills. Regardless, I‘d like to discuss with you my own version of financial triage, including when it should be performed and how to do it the right way.

What is it?

The definition of triage is basically sorting through people to determine who needs immediate medical treatment and in which order. Therefore, my definition of financial triage is to take a hard objective assessment of your debts and prioritize in which order you will pay them off. This will allow you to take a prudent, financially organized approach to solving your debt.

Prioritize Your Debts

If you are in need of financial triage, then it is assumed that you have some debt in which you are paying interest on. I would include all debts besides your home loan. You need to divide up your debts, or assess them, based on two different criteria. One is the amount of the debt and two is the interest that you are paying on each debt. I would make two lists with all your debts prioritized according to each set of criteria.

You Make the Call

At this point, you have two choices to make, as there are two schools of thought regarding paying down your debt. I don’t have technical names for both, but you may have heard of the first one. It is called a “debt snowball.” In this process, you basically pay off your debts in their order of size. Meaning, if you have debts of $500, $1000 and $1500, then you would pay the $500 one off first and move up the list. This disregards the amount of interest that you are paying on any of your debts. This way you can build up momentum and gain confience.

The second is sometimes known as “debt avalanche,” where you start with the highest interest rate and work your way down, like an avalanche starts at the top and works its way down the mountain. Meaning, in the second list you have created, where your debts are prioritized according to their interest rates, you would start with the debt with the highest interest rate, pay that off (while still paying the minimums on all other debts) and cross them off the list in that order. This strategy allows you to eliminate the most damaging debts first.

Which Approach is Best?

Should you choose debt snowball or debt avalanche? Both approaches have their pros and cons. With the debt snowball, you’ll be able to celebrate so-called “victories” in your journey out of debt in a quicker fashion. Depending on your level of credit card debt, you may want to consider this. The last thing that you want to do is to get discouraged and give up.

If you want to take a strict financial approach to your credit card debt and solve it with the absolute least amount of money paid during the process, then you would pay off your debts according to the interest rates that they carry in the debt avalanche approach. However, it could be a long time before you can cross your first debt off of your list, so you’d need to be more of a self-motivated type. This means you can stay on track and focused without the need for these psychological victories along the way.

For those of you that still have any real kind of credit card debt (or any debts that you’re paying interest on), financial triage can be a great way to help organize your trip to financial freedom.

Have any of you out there tried either approach?

(photo credit: meddygarnet)

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David Bakke
David started his own personal finance blog, YourFinances101, in June of 2009 and published his first book on ways to save more and spend less called "Don't Be A Mule..." Since then he has been a regular contributor for Money Crashers. He lives just outside Atlanta, GA and most all of his free time is taken up by his amazing three year old son, Nicholas.

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  • http://www.pfsdebtrelief.com Stephan

    im personally a fan of attacking the highest interest rates first. while i see the reasoning behind the debt snowball, it really doesnt make much sense for anyone to pay more in interest just so they can “celebrate” their victories over paid off accounts. if you cant will yourself to pay off your debt without a celebration, i highly doubt you will become debt free.

  • David/moneycrashers


    I would tend to lean towards that train of thought as well. It’s what I did.
    But, the debt snowball is obviously very popular, and well, I guess in the end, its whatever works for you.

    Thanks for commenting!

  • Patrick

    I am currently executing my “debt avalanche” plan. Seeing the debt free date of early 2014 is motivation enough for me. I have a plan in place; I now must have the patience to let it work. It’s definitely fun seeing the balances go down. I know some people consider debt as either “good debt” or “bad debt”, but I don’t want any if I can help it.

    • David/moneycrashers


      Great stuff! You’re right–there is very little, if any, “good debt” in life. Maybe a home loan and maybe education costs. That’s about it as I see it.

      Good luck with your plan–sounds like you’re on the right track

      • Patrick

        Thanks for the encouragement. Student loans make up a good portion of the contribution to negative net worth, but I’m well on my way and am less than a couple years removed from school (at least the first round).

        • David Bakke


          If student loans play a signifacant role in your current debt, then I think you’re right on point. Student loan debt is obviously an investment into the future, and will pay you dividends for years to come.

          I’m curently paying off a few sizeable ones myself, so I’m with you on that one.

          Stay focused, keep your end goal in mind, and you’ll be there before you know it!

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