Personal Finance > Debt
Debt-free living: A dream come true?
graphic January 4, 2002: 5:11 p.m. ET

Some people manage to live without any debt. But is it the best way?
By Annelena Lobb
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    NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Close your eyes and picture a life without any debt: no mortgage payments, credit card bills or auto loans. In today's shaky job market, the image holds particular appeal - impossible though it may seem.

    On a national level, Americans are incurring more debt and saving less than ever. The average U.S. household with at least one credit card carries $8,523 in debt, according to, and the savings rate is at a historic low - around 1 percent, according to Standard and Poor's.

    But there are exceptions to every rule. Some disciplined folks out there lead a debt-free lifestyle (and they do it without a CEO's salary). They pay off their mortgages ahead of schedule, pay their monthly credit card bills in full and buy their cars with cash.

    Opposites attract

    Take Leo Szabelski, for example. The power plant engineer at Metro Airport in Dearborn, Mich., lives by his own financial rule of thumb: If you can't afford it, don't buy it. His wife, Carrie Cole, is a certified financial planner - but said she is more prone to racking up the bills than her husband.

    Says Szabelski: "I have a Corvette. But when I first wanted it, I couldn't afford it, largely because of the insurance payments. So I saved money, thinking that I could afford the insurance if I didn't have to pay a car loan too. I didn't buy the Corvette until I was able to pay for it in cash." (Cole estimated that her husband has owned one car for every four she's leased.)

    He also paid off the 15-year mortgage on his home (now theirs, which they share with their two young kids) in a mere five years. "I went crazy when he paid off the house so quickly - as a CFP, I thought of the deductions he'd lose by paying off the mortgage," Cole said. "He broke one of the first rules of financial planning." But Szabelski saw those deductions as only 33 cents received for every full dollar paid.

    A question of personality?

    So what inspires people to live debt-free? Certified financial planner Doug Flynn, of Flynn Zito Financial Services in Garden City, N.Y., said his debt-free clients have a unique perspective on spending. They "go without" certain luxuries, but they don't miss them, either.

    "The people I know who live without debt don't think they're sacrificing anything," said Flynn. "But they certainly don't spend what other people spend, and that's because living without debt at some point involves lifestyle decisions. Some people can do it, and others just aren't willing to."

    Flynn said many of the debt-free people he knows get those ideas from their parents. But Carolyn Wozniak, one of Cole's debt-free clients, is not so sure it's solely a question of nurture.†

    "My two boys are savers, like my husband and I. But my daughter spends like there's no tomorrow and has whatever she wants," Wozniak said. "Who knows why some people are that way and some aren't?"

    Enticing, but wise?

    Reducing debt tops most people's list of financial priorities. But experts in the field don't necessarily recommend you avoid all debt at any cost. Some loans work to your advantage and others are just plain necessary. If you're determined to keep your debt to a minimum, however, keep these points in mind before you talk with a lender:

    1.) Ensure you can afford to repay the debt. That means keeping some emergency money liquid. "I think living without any debt whatsoever is neither wise, nor practical," said Phil Cook, a certified financial planner at Cook and Associates in Torrance, Calif. "But if you're going to take out a loan, you must have emergency cash reserves."

    His rationale? It's hard to say you'll never lose your job. If you do get a pink slip, the emergency money will help you make monthly payments until you're back in the saddle again. Cole added that someone who uses all of his available cash to make heavier payments on credit cards would be set back by even a small emergency - back into a cycle of charging.

    2.) Evaluate the return you'll get on your debt. If you're buying a home of your own, for example, borrowing to start a business, or studying for a Ph.D., you receive great benefits from incurring debt. And you'll also receive tax deductions come April 15th on things like student loan interest, mortgage interest and property taxes, said David R. Bergmann, a CFP at the David R. Bergmann Group in Marina Del Rey, Calif.

    "The benefit you receive from taking on 'good' mortgage debt is partially the mortgage interest tax deduction," Bergmann said. "But it's also the enormous benefit of owning your home."

    On the flip side, assets that decrease in value don't justify taking out a loan, unless there is a unique incentive to borrow (like the zero-percent financing currently available on automobiles), said Cook. "If you can, avoid borrowing to buy depreciating assets, like cars and furniture," he said.

    3.) Remember the power of leveraging. "The debt-free mentality is largely the product of emotion - how nice it would be to never make a mortgage payment again," Cook said. "Good debt gives you some leverage that helps you increase your net worth."

    He gave the following example: If someone pays for a $100,000 house in cash, and it increases in value by $5,000, then they've made a 5 percent return on the investment. But if you invest $20,000 in a down payment on that same house, and it increases in value by $5,000, then you've made a 25 percent return on your investment.

    "That doesn't factor in mortgage costs, but they wouldn't reduce those returns dramatically either," Cook said. "Of course, when prices are falling, leveraging can work in reverse. But that's infrequent with real estate. As long as you can service the debt, I think you're better off with the mortgage."

    4) When it comes to debt, know your comfort zone. Mortgages are a prime example, Flynn said. At one extreme, you have someone like Szabelski, who paid off a 15-year mortgage in five years to get a "bird in hand" as quickly as possible. At the other? "I have clients who took out a 40-year mortgage on a $500,000 house with a tiny down payment. Their mortgage payments are almost all interest. They invest the deductions," Flynn said. "After 40 years, all they'll basically have to repay is the principal - and by then the house will probably be worth a heck of a lot more than $500,000."

    What about credit cards? "Everyone has a credit card threshold," Flynn said. "Say someone maintains about $5,000 in credit card debt and has $5,000 cash savings. Traditional financial planning? Use the cash to pay the debt. But if they're comfortable with $5,000 in debt, even if they pay it off, chances are they'll rack that $5,000 up again. Then they have five grand in debt and no savings. So you have to think about those rules carefully."

    Patience is a virtue

    According to Szabelski, keeping debt low (or nonexistent) requires patience in the face of temptation.

    "When you want something, it's better to save for it than to go in debt to have it," he said. "These days, there's always someone dangling new keys in front of your face or offering you vacation package deals. But if you put a $3,000 to $5,000 vacation deal on a 22 percent interest rate credit card, that trip to Europe will have cost you $10,000 to $12,000 by the time you're done paying it off." graphic


    In Ďover our headsí

    The hunt for extra cash

    Debt overload: 5 red flags


    Money 101: Controlling debt