Money Essentials

Good debt vs. bad debt

Sometimes it makes sense to borrow - a lot of times it doesn't.


It's almost impossible to live debt-free; most of us can't pay cash for our homes or our children's college educations. But too many of us let debt get out of hand.

Ideally, experts say, your total monthly long-term debt payments, including your mortgage and credit cards, should not exceed 36% of your gross monthly income. That's one metric mortgage bankers consider when assessing the creditworthiness of a potential borrower.

It's far too easy to spend more than you can afford, especially when you pay by credit card. The average U.S. household with at least one credit card carries nearly a $15,950 in credit-card debt (in 2012), according to CreditCards.com, and personal bankruptcies have hit record highs in recent years.

Of course, avoiding debt at any cost is not smart either if it means depleting your cash reserves for emergencies. The challenge is learning how to judge which debt makes sense and which does not and then wisely managing the money you do borrow.

Good debt includes anything you need but can't afford to pay for up front without wiping out cash reserves or liquidating all your investments. In cases where debt makes sense, only take loans for which you can afford the monthly payments.

Bad debt includes debt you've taken on for things you don't need and can't afford (that trip to Bora Bora, for instance). The worst form of debt is credit-card debt, since it usually carries the highest interest rates.

Sometimes the decision to borrow doesn't hinge on how much cash you have but on whether there are ways to make your money work harder for you. If interest rates are low, compare what you'll spend in interest on a loan versus what your money could earn if it were invested. If you think you can get a higher return from investing your cash than what you'll pay in interest on a loan, borrowing a small amount at a low rate may make sense.

calculator
Debt Reduction Planner
glossary
Glossary
take the test
Take
the test
more lessons
More Money Essentials
lessons
Features
They're hiring!These Fortune 100 employers have at least 350 openings each. What are they looking for in a new hire? More
If the Fortune 500 were a country...It would be the world's second-biggest economy. See how big companies' sales stack up against GDP over the past decade. More
Sponsored By:
More Galleries
Some Converse copycats cost big bucks A few bargain brands got swept up in Chuck Taylor's net, but others cost a pretty penny. More
Urban infrastructure gets a second life Railroad beds become parks, power plants become aquariums and slaughterhouses are now art centers as an industrial past turns people-centric. More
Boomtown moms From working mothers raising their kids in RVs to stay-at-home moms who spend their days organizing events for the Oil Wives club, meet the moms of North Dakota's oil boom. More

Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.