There is no such thing as good debt and bad debt — only debt

When it comes to your personal finances, you have to play mind games. Because the road to financial success starts with how you think about money.

When buying anything, repeat to yourself, “Is this a need or a want?” It’s a question that will give pause before a purchase and slow down your spending.

And when you’re thinking about getting a loan, live by the mantra, “Cash is better than credit.”

I was on NPR’s 1A with Joshua Johnson discussing student loans and caller after caller talked about their crushing debt. You could hear the stress and agony in their voices. David, from Texas, said every time he logs into his loan servicer’s website he cringes.

A doctor from Michigan is carrying $493,000 in loans. His monthly payments under a standard repayment plan are $4,700.

Johnson asked what advice I would give to high school students and their parents who are about to finalize college choices, many of them paying with education loans.

Hate debt.

Following the NPR segment, I received a direct message through my Twitter account from Jared Bernstein, former chief economist to former Vice President Joe Biden and senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He had been listening and asked, “Do you really hate all debt? Isn’t there good debt and bad debt?”

Bernstein said, “Suppose a kid who could have reached 10 on her potential scale reached seven because she didn’t take out a loan for (University X), a loan she could have handily serviced?”

Look, I know my views are extreme, almost un-American in a nation that relies so heavily personally and politically on borrowing money. But when it comes to money, what you tell yourself matters.

Student loans and mortgages are marketed as good debt. But having credit card debt is considered bad. The conventional wisdom is that it’s OK to take on debt that has the potential to either increase your net worth or boost your earnings potential.

Yet, are the various forms of debt really that different emotionally?

There is now $1.3 trillion in outstanding student loan debt.

“The percentage of bachelor’s degree recipients graduating with excessive student loan debt has been growing for the last three decades,” according to research by Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of strategy at, a free website about college admissions and financial aid.

Kantrowitz believes a borrower has excessive student loan debt when 10 percent or more of the person’s gross income is devoted to the loan payment.

The Consumer Federation of America released a study last month reporting that $137 billion in federal student loans are in default, up 14 percent from 2015.

Last year, 1.1 million federal direct loan borrowers defaulted. I doubt any of those borrowers would say their debt is good.

To Bernstein’s point about a young adult with potential, Gallup and Purdue University have developed an index to measure the relationship between the level of student debt used to attend college and a graduate’s well-being. The index includes a survey of more than 30,000 graduates.

“The type of school alumni went to — public or private, small or large, very selective or less selective — was far less likely to be related to the quality of alumni’s lives after they graduated than specific experiences they had in college,” Gallup and Purdue found.

I know people have to borrow to buy a home. Most can’t purchase a car to get to their job without an auto loan. And while I discourage people from taking on any debt for college, I understand some feel they won’t get a degree without some borrowing.

But when we use positive adjectives to describe debt we minimize the financial bondage it creates.

If people hated every dollar borrowed just maybe they wouldn’t overextend themselves. A healthy hatred of debt leads to a more cautious borrower.

So, I stand by what I said. I hate all debt.

And no, there is no such thing as good debt and bad debt. There is only debt.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

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