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This other question about home renovations makes reference to the concept of "good debt."

Could somebody explain the concepts of good debt vs. bad debt, providing examples of each?

Are there cases when borrowing for a specific kind of purchase (e.g. a house, or a car, an education) could be considered good debt in one scenario, and bad debt in another scenario?

Last: on good debt and that old saying "you can never have too much of a good thing": really?

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9 Answers 9

up vote 17 down vote accepted

The word "good" was used in contrast to "bad" but these words are misused here. There are three kinds of debt:

  • Debt for spending. Never go into debt to buy consumables, go out for a good time, for vacations, or other purchases with no lasting financial value.

  • Debt for depreciating assets, such as cars and sometimes things like furniture. There are those who put this in the same category as the first, but I know many people who can budget a car payment and pay it off during the life of the car. In a sense, they are renting their car and paying interest while doing so.

  • Debt for appreciating, money-making assets. Mortgage and student loans are both often put into the good category. The house is the one purchase that, in theory, provides an immediate return. You know what it saves you on the rent. You know what it costs you, after tax. If someone pays 20% of their income toward their fixed rate mortgage, and they'd otherwise be paying 25% to rent, and long term the house will keep up with inflation, it's not bad in the sense that they need to aggressively get rid of it. Student loans are riskier in that the return is not at all guaranteed. I think that one has to be careful not to graduate with such a loan burden that they start their life under a black cloud. Paying 10% of your income for 10 years is pretty crazy, but some are in that position.

Finally, some people consider all debt as bad debt, live beneath their means to be debt free as soon as they can, and avoid borrowing money.

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I agree. I'd add that if can't afford to buy a car without a loan, you should use some combination of public transit, a bicycle, and a zipcar. –  lucius Aug 14 '10 at 7:50
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Public transit, bicycle is not an option for about 90% of the US. Keep in mind that for most Americans, owning a car enables you to have a job. –  msemack Jun 20 '11 at 16:23
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@msemack - 90%? Citation? NYC has 10 million and all can commute, there are many cities that have public transportation. 90% sounds too high. I'd agree the bike is tough in some areas, when it's pouring rain what do you do? –  JoeTaxpayer Jun 20 '11 at 17:45
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As of 2006, 50% of the US population lives in suburbs, where public transit is largely non-existant. And then you have the population living in rural areas. So, maybe not 90%, but certainly more than half. –  msemack Jun 21 '11 at 16:15
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@msemack -thanks. agreed. There are times/places I ignore hyperbole or exaggeration. In any matter of financial discussions, I look for accuracy. By the way, I accept that the bike option gets wiped out as a reliable method, unless the employee can telecommute on rainy days. –  JoeTaxpayer Jun 21 '11 at 16:51

I think people are conflating two orthogonal sets of terms. Unsecured/secured and good/bad are not synonyms.

Debt may be secured or unsecured. If I take a loan against a car or house it is typically secured, so the object is collateral against the loan.

Bad debt in financial terms is a loan that is not expected to be recovered. A bank might write off a loan or a portion of a loan as bad debt if the borrower goes bankrupt or into administration for example. Both secured and unsecured loans may be considered bad debt.

I think the context in which the question is being asked is how to distinguish between sensible and inadvisable borrowing. An extreme example of inadvisable borrowing would be to buy a PC on a store card. PCs devalue very quickly and a store card may charge 30% APR, so paying the minimum off each month would mean paying more than twice the sticker price for a product that is now worth less than half the original borrowed amount.

On the other hand, a 3% mortgage when borrowing less than 60% of the value of a property is a good bet from a lender's perspective, and would be a good debt to have (not as good as no debt, but better thhan a high APR one).

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I really like: I think the context in which the question is being asked is how to distinguish between sensible and inadvisable borrowing. –  Chris W. Rea Jan 16 '10 at 18:26
    
@Chris, yes, I think that is the key point. I've highlighted it accordingly –  Rich Seller Jan 16 '10 at 19:43
    
Well, if you purchased a PC on credit to start your own consulting business, that may not be bad debt, if you could start charging immediately. I'd have to consider good vs. bad being about stuff that likely pays you back, vs. stuff that doesn't. If you're a business, you will borrow $200k if you do a business plan and there should be a return on investment of that much money in 9 months. –  Scott Whitlock Jan 18 '10 at 2:12
    
@Scott that's a fair point. I would say that buying a PC to start a business is a different proposition to getting a new gaming rig, it could count as sensible borrowing if it is part of an overall business plan and not just to satisfy an urge. –  Rich Seller Jan 18 '10 at 10:35

Here's what Suze Orman has to say about it:

Good debt is money you borrow to purchase an asset, such as a home you can afford. History shows that home values generally rise in step with the inflation rate, so a mortgage is good debt. Student loans are, too, because they're an investment in the future. Census data pegs the average lifetime earnings of a high school graduate at a million dollars below that of someone with a bachelor's degree.

Bad debt is money you borrow to buy a depreciating asset or to finance a "want" rather than a "need." A car is a depreciating asset; from the day you drive it off the lot, it starts losing value. Credit card balances or a home equity line of credit that's used to pay for indulgences—vacations, shopping, spa days—is bad debt.

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None of the previous answers (which are all good) mention margin accounts (loans from your broker). You may also have heard them described as "leverage". It may seem odd to mention this rather narrow form of debt here, but it's important because overuse of leverage has played a large part in pretty much every financial crisis you can think of (including the most recent one). As the Investopedia definitions indicate, leverage magnifies gains, but also magnifies losses.

I consider margin/leverage to be "bad" debt.

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Good addition to the answers. –  Chris W. Rea Aug 9 '10 at 16:49

In general, all forms of debt are bad, as they keep you tied to a financial institution and can be an emotional burden for many. In the book Payback (by Margaret Atwood), debt is even described as a sin. However some forms of debt are necessary and some can help create wealth.

"Good" debt: a mortgage - to purchase a home, which is an asset that usually appreciates in value.

Necessary debt: car loan or lease - only when there is no other mode of transportation to get to work.

Really bad debt: unpaid credit cards - for dinners out.

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Actually, a car loan can be considered good debt if look at it from the point of view that most people buying a $30k car have $30 in appreciating assets somewhere, but don't have that much cash. Borrowing for the car allows me to keep my assets appreciating rather than cashing them, and starting all over. –  Chris Cudmore Mar 24 '11 at 21:07
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@chris: The reason that buying a car for $30k is bad debt is because you could have probably bought a $10k car instead. –  jprete Jun 19 '11 at 13:45
    
@ChrisCudmore: as long as the interest on the car loan is less than your returns from the appreciating assets. –  Victor Jan 15 '12 at 3:13

From what I've heard in the past, debt can be differentiated between secured debt and unsecured debt.

Secured debt is a debt for which something stands good such as a mortgage on your house. You have a debt, but that debt is covered by the value of an asset and if you needed to free yourself of the debt, then you could by selling that asset. This is what is known as "good" debt.

Unsecured debt is debt that is incurred where the only thing that is available to pay it back is your income. An example of this is credit card debt where you purchase something that couldn't be sold again to pay off the debt. This is know as "bad" debt.

You have to be careful about thinking that house debt is always "good" debt because the house stands good for it though. The problem with that is that the house could go down in value and then suddenly your "good" debt is "bad" debt (or no longer secured). Cars are very risky this way because they go down in value. It is really easy to get a car loan where before long you are upside down.

This is the problem with the term "good" debt. The label makes it sound like it is a good idea to have that debt, and the risk associated with having the debt is trivialized and allows yourself to feel good about your financial plan. Perhaps this is why so many houses are in foreclosure right now, people believed the "good" debt myth and thought that it was ok to borrow MORE than the home was worth to get into a house. Thus they turned a secured debt into an unsecured debt and put their residence at risk by levels of debt they couldn't afford.

Other advice I've heard and tend to agree with, is that you should only borrow for a house, an education and maybe a car (danger on that last one), being careful to buy a modest house, car etc that is well within your means to repay. So if you do have to borrow for a car, go for basic transportation instead of the $40,000 BMW. Keep you house payment less than 1/4th of your take home pay. Pay off the school loans as quickly as possible.

Regardless of the label, "good" "bad" "unsecured" "secured", I think that less debt is better than more debt. There is definitely such a thing as too much "good" debt!

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First of all debt is a technology that allows borrower to bring forward their spending; it's a financial time machine. From borrowers point of view debt is good when it increases overall economic utility.

A young person wants to bring up a family but cannot afford the house. Had they waited for 30 years they would have reached the level of income and savings to buy the house for cash. By the time it might be too late to raise a family, sure they'd enjoy the house for the last 20 years of their life. But they would loose 30 years of utility - they could have enjoyed the house for 50 years! So, for a reasonable fee, they can bring the spending forward.

Another young person might want to enjoy a life of luxury, using the magical debt time machine and bringing forward their future earnings. They might spend 10 years worth of future earnings on entertainment within a year and have a blast. Due to the law of diminishing marginal utility - all that utility is pretty much wasted, but they'll still will need to make sacrifices in the future.

The trick is to roughly match the period of debt repayment to the economic life of the purchase. Buying a house means paying over 30 years for an asset that has an economic life of 80 years+, given that the interest fee is reasonable and the house won't loose it's value overnight that's a good debt.

Buying a used car with a remaining life of 5 years and financing its with a seven years loan - is not a good idea.

Buying a luxurious holiday that lasts a fortnight with 2 years of repayments, i.e. financing non-essential short term need with medium term debt is insane.

The other question is could the required utility be achieved through a substitute at a lower cost without having to bring the spending forward or paying the associated fee.

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All very good answers for the most part, but I have a definition for Good and Bad debt which is a little bit different from those mentioned here so far. The definitions come from Robert Kiyosaki in his book "Rich Dad Poor Dad", which I have applied to all my debts.

Good Debt - Good Debt is debt used to fund a money making asset, an asset which puts money into your pockets (or bank account) each month. In other words the income produced by that asset is more than all the expenses (including the interest repayments on the debt) associated with the asset.

Bad Debt - Bad Debt is debt used to fund both money losing assets and non-assets, where the interest repayments on the debt are more than any income (if any at all) produced by the goods or services the debt was used to purchase, so that you need to take money out of your pockets (or bank account) each month to sustain the debt.

Based on this definition a mortgage used to purchase the house you live in would be classed as bad debt. Why? Because you are making interest repayments on the mortgage and you have other expenses related to the house like rates and maintenance, but you have no income being produced by the house.

Even a mortgage on an investment (or rental) property where the rent is not enough to cover all the expenses is considered to be bad debt.

For the debt on an investment property to be considered as good debt, the rent would have to cover the full interest payments and all other expenses. In other words it would need to be a positively geared (or a cashflow positive) asset.

Why is this definition important in distinguishing between good and bad debt? Because it looks at the cashflow associated with the debt and not the profit. The main reason why most investors and businesses end up selling up or closing down is due to insufficient cashflow. It may be a profitable business, or the value of the property may have increased since you bought it, but if you don't have enough cash every month to pay the bills associated with the asset you will need to sell it.

If the asset produces enough cashflow to pay for all the expenses associated with the asset, then you don't have to fund the asset through other sources of income or savings. This is important in two ways. Firstly, if you are working and suddenly lose your job you don't have to worry about paying for the asset as it is more than paying for itself. Secondly, if you don't have to dig into your other source/s of income or savings to sustain the asset, then theoretically you can buy an unlimited number of similar type assets.

Just a note regarding the mortgage to buy a house you live in being classed as bad debt. Even though in this definition it is considered as bad debt, there are usually other factors which still can make this kind of debt worthwhile. Firstly, you have to live somehere, and the fact that you have to live somwhere means that if you did not buy the house you would probably be renting instead, and still be stuck with a similar monthly payment. Secondly, the house will still appreciate over the long term so in the end you will end up with an asset compared to nothing if you were renting.

Just another note to mention the definition provided by John Stern "...debt is a technology that allows borrower to bring forward their spending; it's a financial time machine...", that's a clever way to think of it, especially when it comes to good debt.

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When I look at debt I try to think of myself as a corporation. In life, you have a series of projects that you can undertake which may yield a positive net present value (for simplicity, let's define positive net present value as a project that yields more benefit than its cost).

Let's say that one of the projects that you have is to build a factory to make clothing. The factory will cost 1 million dollars and will generate revenue of 1.5 million dollars over the next year, afterwhich it wears out.

Although you have the knowledge to build this wonderful factory, you don't have a million bucks laying around, so instead, you go borrow it from the bank. The bank charges you 10% interest on the loan, which means that at the end of the year, the project has yielded a return of 400k.

This is an extremely simplified example of what you call "good" debt. It is good if you are taking the debt and purchasing something with a positive value.

In reality, this should be how people should approach all purchases, even if they are with cash. Everything that you buy is an investment in yourself - even entertainment and luxury items all could be seen as an investment in your happiness and relaxation. If more people approached their finances in this way, people would have much more money to spend,

William

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