Wise debt management is a key component of healthy and effective financial planning. Today, most people carry some amount of debt to finance a degree or buy a home or car. Other debts may be incurred out of necessity or as part of an investment plan. Whatever your reasons for taking on debt, you should understand the different types of debt and their risks. This knowledge will help you manage debt wisely as part of your overall financial plan.
Primary Types of Debt
The two primary types of debt are:
- Unsecured debt. Credit card balances and student loans are common types of unsecured debt. Typically (without considering pandemic-related relief), missing one or more of your monthly payments on unsecured debt could result in late fees, increased interest rates, damage to your credit score, and/or action by a collection agency. A delinquent borrower can also be sued by the lender.
- Secured debt. With secured debt, the lender has an interest in an asset, such as a home mortgage or car loan. In the event of default, the lender has a legal right to repossess its interest in the asset.
Risks to Consider
The distinction between unsecured and secured liabilities should not lead to conclusions about when debt is appropriate. Credit card balances and car loans, for example, are rarely part of a healthy financial plan, in part because assets acquired this way are subject to rapid depreciation. Furthermore, because unsecured debt is convenient, it can get out of control quickly. So, avoiding credit card debt and car loans is advisable unless you have a strict budget and the discipline to stick to it.
Other types of debt, such as mortgages and business loans, could increase your long-term net worth, provided the asset value increases or remains more valuable than the loan balance. In these cases, you have less risk of the debt getting out of control because secured loans can be fully satisfied by disposing of the secured asset. But the obvious downside is you could lose your home, car, or other valued asset. As a result, even if secured debt has lower interest rates and more favorable terms, you should carefully weigh the potential downsides before taking it on.
How Much Debt Can You Afford?
With any type of loan, lenders decide what level of risk they will accept when making a lending decision. Factors they consider include credit history and the prospective borrower’s debt-to-income ratio. But the lender’s main concern is answering the question, “What is the maximum amount we can offer this borrower with the least likelihood they will default on the loan?”
It’s important to realize that a lender’s willingness to loan funds does not mean accepting the loan is prudent. When analyzing your ability to carry debt, consider your budget carefully and focus on the following:
Liquidity. If you suddenly lost your job, would you have enough cash to cover your current liabilities? It’s a good idea to maintain an emergency fund to cover three to six months of expenses. But don’t go overboard. Guard against keeping more than 120 percent of your six-month expense estimate in low-yielding investments. And don’t let more than 5 percent of your cash reserves sit in a noninterest-bearing checking account.
Current debt. Your total contractual monthly debt payments (i.e., minimum required payments) should come to no more than 36 percent of your monthly gross income. Your consumer debt—credit card balances, automobile loans and leases, and debt related to other lifestyle purchases—should amount to less than 10 percent of your monthly gross income. If your consumer debt ratio is 20 percent or more, avoid taking on additional debt.
Housing expenses. Generally, your monthly housing costs—including your mortgage or rent, home insurance, real estate taxes, association fees, and other required expenses—shouldn’t amount to more than 31 percent of your monthly gross income. If you’re shopping for a mortgage, keep in mind that lenders use their own formulas to calculate how much you can afford. These formulas may not work for your situation. For a mortgage insured by the Federal Housing Administration, your housing expenses and long-term debt should not exceed 43 percent of your monthly gross income.
Savings. Although the standard recommended savings rate is 10 percent of gross income, your guideline should depend on your age, goals, and stage of life. You should save more as you age, for example, and as retirement nears, you may need to ramp up your savings to 20–30 percent of your income. Direct deposits, automatic contributions to retirement accounts, and electronic transfers from checking accounts to savings accounts can help you make saving a habit.
Debt Pay-Down Strategies
If you’re carrying debt that exceeds what’s normal for the average household, we can discuss strategies to pay it down as aggressively as is reasonable. Here are two approaches to consider:
- Snowball debt elimination. This involves identifying lowest-balance debts and targeting them for priority repayment while making only the minimum payment on other items of debt. Once the lowest balance is paid off, move on to paying down a new set of lowest-balance debts.
- Debt avalanche. This strategy advocates paying off debts with the highest interest rate first. This makes mathematical sense but requires discipline and the ability to stick with the process.
Debt and Your Investment Plan
In some cases, you may believe that holding debt, such as a mortgage or margin investments, is beneficial. This idea is usually based on the potential for your investments to outperform the interest rate on the applicable loan and the investment opportunities you could explore with that extra liquidity.
For instance, you might believe that paying off a mortgage or margin loan could represent a tax-free return on investment essentially equal to the interest rate paid on the debt. But you would enjoy a significant net benefit only if the rate of return substantially exceeds the cost of the interest. And that result cannot be guaranteed. So, though this strategy could potentially yield a monetary benefit, the overall risk involved is significant.
Need Additional Information?
We’ll talk through these strategies for managing debt and explore other planning solutions that can help you stay or get on track to financial security. By carefully approaching debt with a detailed plan on how much to borrow and how to repay your debt, you can reach your goals and support your long-term financial success.
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