When you think of debt, do you get warm and fuzzy thoughts? Didn’t think so. Do you think of debt as something that you’d like avoid or work toward eliminating? This latter viewpoint seems to be the prerogative of many folks in the personal finance blogosphere, at least based on what I’ve read in numerous articles over the last several years.
A recent short article on Moneyland caught my attention, as it discussed the notion that more young people are leery of debt these days. Instead of viewing debt with the same mindset that their parents did, many are making decisions that reflect a greater reluctance to take on debt than prior generations. For example, making decisions such as living at home with parents or renting instead of going out and buying a place.
My take on this: Bravo!
Now, it’s probably true that instead of absolute fear of debt, it’s better to look at it objectively and realistically. It can be really bad, but at times debt can be a tool for getting certain things done – as well as an emergency safety net, dealing with totally unforeseen medical expenses, etc. Also, if there was no money to borrow, the business world would come to a standstill. So admittedly, debt does have an important role in the big picture.
That being said, however, for the average person out there, most debt is simply not worth taking on. There is something to be said for aspiring to debt-free living.
Here are some different thoughts on types of debt and their legitimacy:
What do many people borrow to buy? Often times, it’s for consumer goods purchases. Buying clothes, electronics, furnuiture, etc. With such purchases, if we can’t afford to pay it off in full as soon as the credit card bill is due, it shouldn’t be bought. Carrying balances means that you shouldn’t have bought the thing in the first place.
What about cars? Are these worth taking out loans for? Well, probably not in my view. If somebody is solvent enough to have a decent emergency fund, then why not pay in full for a car? It doesn’t have to be a $25,000 new car if that’s not affordable. Why not get a functional $5,000 used car instead, if that’s what you can afford to buy in full.
I remember a guy I worked with over a decade ago who bought a brand new SUV despite being a few years out of college. He said he needed to buy it because he needed to feel like he “arrived”. Smart guy, otherwise. I’ve kept in touch with him, and he’s totally got his head on straight now. But back then, he made a decision that showed too much comfort with debt.
It’s safe to say that most home buyers, particularly first time buyers anyway, take on a mortgage. It’s just the way things are done. However, no matter what anybody says about tax deductions, the pride of home ownership, or things of the like - a mortgage is still debt. If you live in a dream home and finance it with a large mortgage, you will be working many hours and possibly years to pay for it. Sometimes it can be helpful to think about how time is money, and determine exactly how much we have to work to finance such dreams.
It seems to make sense that one should ideally buy something that fits legitimate needs in terms of space, location, schools, etc. Some debt is realistic in this case, but should be manageable with the goal of paying it off sooner than later. Trading up for a McMansion, luxury condo, etc – not sure about that if it requires extra financing versus what’s truly needed.
“Investment” Debt – To a Point, Anyway
Now, not all debt is bad of course. When people start questioning if college is worth it, I think that’s going way, way too far. It’s worth it, necessary, and needs to happen for most younger folks if possible. Such debt should still be minimized though, and choices can be strategically made to pick the right college based on quality and value. Then, this debt can be considered to be an investment in one’s future.
My thought is that burdening somebody with tons of debt to start out life is not ideal. But, since college is absolutely necessary for most people, why not view the choice of which college to attend as a strategic investment? You know, one that requires an analysis of costs and expected/potential returns. Perhaps it’s a matter of financial literacy, reframing the college decision, or thinking more pragmatically than emotionally.
My Questions For You:
Do you see as I do, that most debt is truly bad and unnecessary, other than a few of the specific examples I noted above (medical, limited home, smart college choice)?
Do you think that this recent aversion of debt by young adults is a good thing for our society as a whole? Or, is it irrational and has it gone too far?