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My cash reserves are around $11k, including an emergency fund of about a month and a half, and I budget rigorously. The only debt I have is $7k at zero interest, paid at $300/month, and it's from a family member who would almost certainly defer payments if something catastrophic happened. (BTW, our family has successfully made and paid tens of thousand of dollars of inter-member debt for many years, and the bankers and lenders vary over time.)

I happen to be in a free Dave Ramsey class, and a question came up. Should I pay off the zero interest debt before finishing my emergency fund? If so, why? My inclination is to finish accumulating my emergency fund first. The only substantive argument I can see to pay early is an emotional one: it's appealing and secure to have zero debt. Paying it off early will actually cost me money, because inflation is decreasing the value of the debt over time. My job is extremely stable, and also it's a rotating 12 month contract where I doubt they ever break the contract.

P.S. I should be honest and admit I'm currently throwing away some 401k match; my employer matches an incredible 9% 1-for-1 but I can only afford 8% while I'm getting on my feet. I've calculated that 8.5% is sufficient for my retirement.

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8.5% originally struck me as a bit low to be sufficient for retirement, but then I remembered that you are getting that matched, so assuming you stay at the company long enough to be fully vested, your actual savings rate is 17%, which is flipping fantastic :). Just thought I would point out that for those who don't have such a great match, 8.5% is not always enough to save for retirement, depending on one's income of course. – Jeremy Sep 30 '12 at 3:11
Also, may I ask in what sector you work (and in what country - I assume USA)? – Jeremy Sep 30 '12 at 3:12
My sector is education, and it is indeed in the USA. My guess is the match is so high because some employees have grossly undersaved so the organization is trying to help them out. While we're being precise, it's actually a 403b, which is a similar animal to a 401k. – Paul Oct 1 '12 at 22:17
I decided to continue building my cushion and increase my retirement contribution to max out the match. Almost 18 months later and post-marriage I still believe that was the correct decision. I still like Dave Ramsey. – Paul Feb 12 '14 at 17:01
up vote 16 down vote accepted

First I must say that I'm not a Ramsey fan. Sometimes loans will make your financial situation significantly better. Especially if its a 0% loan. Generally, I do think that leveraging has its place, its the ab-use of loans what causes problems, not the use.

Re your question - you're right in trying to first build up an emergency fund. You should have enough in it to be able to pay for yourself for at least half a year of unemployment or zero income. You only have one month.

Your family member gave you money for free, which is admirable, but I'm sure there's a limit to everyone's generosity and he might not give it to you for free again, once you pay it off. Thus, you should be able to handle your future troubles on your own, and emergency fund is a crucial part of this.

Pay as agreed, try not to be late, and you'll pay the loan off within 3 years. If you accumulate enough emergency fund, and you still have some extra left - pay some extra on the loan in order to pay it off early.

Do make sure you take full advantage of the employer's 401k match. This has, IMHO, much higher priority than paying off the 0% loan early.

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+1 on everything. Except I would build the emergency fund slower in order to take advantage of the 401K matching, continuing to pay the loan as agreed. After the money is in 401K if you are ever in a true emergency you could withdraw or take a loan against it. – Geo Sep 30 '12 at 4:18
What geo said. I'd not skip a match to put cash aside at zero interest. – JoeTaxpayer Sep 30 '12 at 4:56
Note - littleadv did say to grab the full match, so it's not an exception, just extra agreement..... – JoeTaxpayer Sep 30 '12 at 21:51

First, I must say I am a Ramsey fan.

Here's the thing, the borrower is slave to the lender, so if you eat Thanksgiving dinner with your generous relative next week, the food will taste different. Before I was a Dave fan, I borrowed money from my cousin once, and that debt was always hanging over my head. At times, it made hanging out awkward since I had money to 'go out' but not money to 'pay back.' It felt great once I paid him off, but the awkwardness was never cool.

I'm sure some will disagree (Dave wouldn't), but if you TEMPORARILY stop your 8% contribution, and combine that with your current margin, you could pay off the debt from your cash flow and complete your emergency fund. Since you said that $11k is 1.5 month's expenses, you would essentially need to double that for a three-month fund or quadruple it for a six month fund. I know $300 may not seem like a lot, but since I value family over money, I would pay that off today out of the $11k and then replenish and fill the emergency fund.

Also, your expenses will have dropped by $300/mo., so it will take less money to get to three or six month's expenses. Once that's complete, get your full 8% contribution.

FYI: I consider margin to be the difference between your income and your outgo.

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That would make 0% loan to become 8% loan (much more in fact, because 8% is of the salary). Isn't it a waste? I'm sure Ramsey would disagree with you. – littleadv Nov 16 '12 at 20:00
I highly doubt it. Ramsey is pretty consistent. My guess is Dave would say to payoff the debt, stop 401(k) contribution until the emergency fund is completed. When that's done, resume 401(k) contribution. – Waddler Nov 19 '12 at 20:35
then I'm even less fan of him. That is a ridiculous proposal that would definitely harm the OP. – littleadv Nov 19 '12 at 20:39
I actually don't need to guess how would I feel. Been there, done that, and doing it still. I wouldn't lend money that would otherwise be my emergency fund, and I would call on defaults, but other than that, and as I said to the OP, as long as they pay as agreed, I don't care how many iPads they can afford. If someone gives you money for free, it does show a certain level of trust and affection to begin with. And as I said - the OP shouldn't abuse it, and pay as agreed. But NOT on the account of his own future, unless he would otherwise default. – littleadv Nov 29 '12 at 19:14
if the cost of debt is less than a benefit, then why not have debt? I don't mind carrying 0-APR balance on my credit card, or taking mortgage at the interest rate less than inflation, and see no reason to forgo such opportunities. In this case (of the OP), the debt doesn't cost anything, but your solution actually makes it significantly more expensive than it could have been. You're suggesting to pay enormous amounts of money for no benefit. – littleadv Dec 3 '12 at 18:08

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