A Goal Based Approach To Debt Management

Good debt management advice is hard to come by.

Traditional financial wisdom states that certain debts, such as mortgage and student loans are good debts, while most other debts such as credit card debt, car loans, etc… are bad debts.

On the other hand, many Personal Finance bloggers express the opinion that ALL debt is essentially bad, to be paid down as quickly as possible, sometimes even at the cost of establishing a sustainable savings plan for the household.

So what is the truth?

In truth, the good debt vs. bad debt determination is not written in stone and needs to be evaluated based on each individual’s unique situation.

In this article, we will not offer any prescriptive ‘facts’ but will try to establish a few guidelines that the readers can employ in their own situations to make the determination for themselves.

Debt trapIt is important to understand that there are two distinct stages of any debt.

Stage 1 is the decision stage when you are trying to determine if you should take on a new debt.  This is a key decision point as it will likely determine your future relationship with the debt (should you take it on) and the asset that you acquire with this debt.  This is also, most frequently the time when not enough thought is devoted to the decision process, as we are more likely to be intoxicated with the possibilities with the asset we are going to acquire and are not able to be rational about the financial aspect of the acquisition.

Stage 2 of the debt is after the debt has been acquired.  Here the decision process changes and the question now becomes whether it makes sense to keep carrying the debt as it is or should it be paid off as quickly as possible.  It should be noted that in some cases, what we determined to be a good debt in Stage 1, may actually turn into a bad debt in stage 2, sometimes due to factors beyond our control.  In stage 2, it is important to realize the the debt is yours and you can’t do anything about it except to find the best way to handle it.

In this article, we will focus on Stage 1 of the debt.

Stage 1: Choosing to take on a new debt

When debating whether to take a new debt on, it is important to focus on two key points: What is the nature of the asset that you wish to acquire with this debt and what is the cost of the debt?  A good debt is always goal-based.  Goals need to positively address your personal finance or lifestyle issues.  A goal on the lines of: I need to buy the latest iPhone is not what we are talking about here.  You also need to have a defined project in mind and a plan to accomplish your goals for the project. Debt incurred for impulse buys are never good debts.

What is a good debt?

A good debt is a debt that allows you to acquire an appreciating asset.  Essentially, the value of the appreciation or income production needs to be greater than the cost of the debt that you are taking on.  Which basically means that in current dollars, the total gain from the asset over the life of the debt is greater than the total interest and costs you incur on the debt.  A few examples of good debt are:

  • Taking a student loan to pursue a graduate degree, which will result in greater income potential for the lifetime (see some student loan repayment options).  Here the asset you are acquiring is the new/upgraded skills and career marketability.
  • Buying an income producing property with additional possibility for capital appreciation.
  • Buying a car if it is necessary for you to perform your new job.  Please note that buying a car on debt is not always bad as long as there is a good reason for it.
  • Buying a vacation home that you plan to use to write your next masterpiece novel.
  • Mortgage, when you are buying a house that is likely to appreciate at a rate greater than inflation (at least, best if the appreciation rate over the term of mortgage is greater than the interest rate on the mortgage) and it provides other quantifiable and/or intangible values by greatly improving your lifestyle.

These are all good debts because they potentially create more financial value than they destroy.  Please note that as most life decisions, this is not risk free.  You may never get to finish that great novel or your graduate studies due to other circumstances but if you have put a great deal of thought and planning behind these projects than a large amount of risk is mitigated.

What is a bad debt?

A bad debt is a debt that allows you to acquire something with short term value, mainly for immediate consumption. These tend to be impulse buys. A few random examples would be

  • Buying the latest and greatest HDTV on credit when your existing TV works as well (note: that this may be a good debt if you can justify the value: for example, if you plan to install the TV at the bar of the restaurant that you own so you can show football games and in process keep the patrons lingering and ordering more of your brew).
  • Using credit cards for your regular grocery shopping, if you regularly carry balance.  On the other hand, if you are diligent about paying off your balance every month and use credit cards only for convenience and miles/points, then it is not a bad debt.
  • Buying or leasing a new car every couple of years on credit.
  • Mortgage, when you are buying a house at prices or location where the appreciation potential is severely limited or at a high rate of interest.

Additionally, you need to consider the cost of the debt to determine if the debt is good or bad.

Your money is valuable and can be saved/invested in many different ways to get you a rate of return.

The question you should ask is whether it is cheaper to go into debt or should you pay cash if possible.  If you can get better returns for your cash elsewhere than the amount of interest you will save if you pay in cash, than by all means take the debt on.

All this amounts to a certain level of analysis at first but once you get the gist of it, this analysis will and should become a second nature.

Personal Dividends is published by Tom Drake and discusses Personal Finance, Investing and other Life Improvement topics.
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Published or updated March 2, 2013.


  1. Thanks for the post. I would add that a “good debt” can be a “bad debt” when for example you buy a house you simply cannot afford because you think it will appreciate.

    As you mention it is important to evaluate the risks associated with each debt taken on and make wise decisions. Perhaps waiting to acquire any new debt (even good) until one of your old debts is paid off might be a consideration also.
    .-= JT@RedeemingRiches´s last blog ..Friday Finance Round Up – July 10, 2009 =-.

  2. Nice post on good vs bad debt…..the problem I notice with consumers is that they have the ability to make any debt sound like a “good debt” they always seem to justify getting in debt even for things that are not appreciating or needed. I hope with the credit crisis consumers have learned to be more careful with taking on debt.

    The other thing to consider even if it is good debt is your ability to service it. A mortgage maybe a good debt but if you can not COMFORTABLY make the payments than your chances of default are high and the good debt can soon turn into bad debt.
    .-= Ray´s last blog ..Weekly Review-Welcome Globe and Mail Readers Edition =-.

  3. @JT and @Ray, You are right that what once was a ‘good debt’ can turn into a ‘bad debt’ as your situation changes and that you need to consider your overall debt burden in context of your income, assets and income risk. There are many guidelines that state that your total debt payments should not exceed a third of your take home pay, but these guidelines assume that you have a good amount of cash stashed away as emergency savings. If you do not have enough in your emergency savings account, you should be even more conservative in the amount of debt that you take on.
    .-= Arohan´s last blog ..7 Tips for Saving Money on Health Insurance =-.

  4. Well there are certainly “good debts” as far as the reason for taking them on, I would hope people don’t delay paying them off becuase of their “good” status.
    .-= Tom @ Canadian Finance Blog´s last blog ..Friday Links =-.

  5. In reference to good debt – “If you have put a great deal of thought and planning behind these projects than a large amount of risk is mitigated.”

    So true. But, I believe most people don’t put nearly enough thought into taking on “good debt.” If they actually had to save up $20K, $50k, or $100K to pay for that college education, then they’d probably take more than a couple hours to decide on their program of study, the school they’d attend, how quickly they’d finish, etc. Debt seems to make expensive decisions easier to make because the borrower has no memory of the sacrifices they had to make in order to come up with the funds to attend college or start a new business.

    The argument that “I can get a better return on my money if I invest in…” is used frequently. I understand quite a few people get rich investing borrowed money in higher performing assets. However, many people go broke pursuing this strategy. Primarily because the asset they’re investing in doesn’t yield a high enough return to cover the principal amount of the loan, let alone the interest. Or they don’t invest the borrowed funds in the potentially higher performing asset at all.
    .-= Shawanda´s last blog ..Before You Give =-.

  6. Hiro @ my10000dollars.com says:

    I agree with the comment Ray made

    “Nice post on good vs bad debt…..the problem I notice with consumers is that they have the ability to make any debt sound like a “good debt” they always seem to justify getting in debt even for things that are not appreciating or needed. I hope with the credit crisis consumers have learned to be more careful with taking on debt.”

    The only thing I would argue against is that mortgage and school loans are “good debts”. School loans will be good only if you take full advantage of what an university can offer. Most students don’t realize the true impact in future and miss out on a lot of the “investments” made.
    .-= Hiro @ my10000dollars.com´s last blog ..Technical Analysis: Wk of 7/13/09 =-.

  7. Journey says:

    I have 110k in debt from just my undergrad degree from a top university. I am debating if this is “good debt” or not. My school certainly exposed me to a whole new world of possibilities. However, the pay after graduation is not what I expected it to be.
    .-= Journey´s last blog ..Next Job =-.

    • It’s all in what you do with the degree. Statistics say something like a Bachelor’s versus just high school can earn you one million more in your working time. A college degree also opens up many doors that might not be available without the degree.

  8. I think a mortgage is a good debt if you are paying the same or nearly the same as you would be paying to rent a place.
    At least some of the money (the capital element) is not going to waste.
    I also advise many clients (most are buying vacation homes) that they should take a mortgage rather than putting all their money into buying a property outright as the cost of releasing equity later, should they need it, is far higher than taking a standard purchase mortgage.

    People who come to the Canary Island to love are especially vulnerable to the problems associated with a lack of liquidity and just because you can pay cash doesn’t always mean you should. Given that the money you don’t put into the house purchase can be invested and offset the interest on the mortgage their is little reason not to finance a property purchase.
    .-= Andy in Spain´s last undefined ..(Enjoy 10 returned posts for 2 weeks) =-.

  9. Annie @ Credit Dispute says:

    It is said that some debt are good and some are bad. But when you become overloaded with either of them, you face financial difficulties which will in the long run leads you to a bad lifestyle. That is why it is advice that you should limit your bills in a way that you can afford to pay them within the shortest time possible. This is to maintain a good financial status.

    When you take a loan for future investment, it could be termed as good debt. For instance, you may apply for students loan to advance your education. Your main aim will be to increase chances of getting a better job that will increase your revenues.
    .-= Annie @ Credit Dispute´s last blog ..Bankruptcy: What to expect? =-.

  10. Difference between Good Debts and Bad Debts:
    Every time I see or listen to the word “debt” alarm bells in our heads and actively looking for a way to escape. The first thing to understand is that debt is not always bad, and does not mean you are in trouble. For lots of, the debt

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