Using Debt as a Tool

Debt is a huge topic in our culture. Americans are great at getting into it. "As long as I can afford the payments", they tell themselves. But let's dig a bit deeper into debt. Is debt good, or is it bad? It certainly would seem to depend on who you talk to, or who's advice you listen to. Take for instance Dave Ramsey. He's a huge proponent of debt free living. I can't say that I can argue with the logic. Especially for the "average" American, who trades time for dollars at a 9-5 job. Living free of consumer debt is a very worthy goal, and it opens up a lot of options and the ability to live with less stress and more freedom. But, can debt actually help you? In certain circumstances, and used the right way, the answer is "yes!".

Debt is a tool. Like any tool, it can be used correctly, and it can be used incorrectly. If you use a chainsaw to cut down a tree, and you know how to operate one, all is well. You're using it for the right purpose, and you're trained on how to do it properly. But if you've never used a chainsaw before, and you try to figure it out on your own, you're likely to get hurt. Even worse, if you try to use it in a way that it's not intended for, you'll probably lose a limb. Unfortunately this is the equivalent of where most people are in their financing intelligence and education. Our education system teaches the basics, and how to get a "regular" job, but it does a very poor job of teaching about the real world - especially when it comes to managing money. I'll admit that a lot of this responsibility should fall on the parents, not the teachers or school system. Just look at the amount of consumer debt the average American has though, and you'll see the the problem - you can't teach what you don't know (or at least what you don't practice). The "instant gratification", "buy it now and figure out how to pay for it later" mindset has taken over. Americans especially are addicted to it. But I'll digress here, as I don't want to get off topic. The point is, debt is overwhelmingly used in a way that is not beneficial to the consumer, but there is a way it can be used as a tool to further your financial goals.

Here's the basics of it. Debt that pays for itself, or brings in extra above the cost of the debt, can be good debt if managed correctly. Debt that costs you money, and that you need to figure out a way to bring money in from elsewhere to pay for it, is bad debt. Robert Kiyosaki puts it this way: if it takes money out of your pocket every month, it's a liability (bad debt); if it puts money in your pocket every month, it's an asset (good debt). This is why your accountant says your personal residence is an asset, but Kiyosaki would say it's a liability. Even if you own it free and clear, you're still paying out of your own pocket for insurance, taxes and maintenance.

One of the best examples of using debt as a tool is in real estate. Say you want to buy a rental property as an income producing asset. Your options are either to pay cash, or to finance the purchase. In most parts of the country, and for most individuals, saving up that kind of cash would take, well, a very long time. Or, you can use leverage (more on the power of leverage later), and finance part of the purchase. Not only does this allow you to buy the home sooner than if you tried to save to pay cash, it will allow you to buy more homes before then as well. Any cash you don't need to put into the property can be used to invest elsewhere. The key is to make sure the debt pays for itself, or better yet, the property cash flows and brings in money every month. If it's putting money in your pocket, and your using other people's money (the bank's and your renters) to buy an asset for you, you're using the tool of debt in the right way.

Here's another example. You want to buy a new car, which costs $50,000. I'm not an advocate of buying depreciating "assets" that are brand new, but let's just say for example's sake. You can either pay cash, or you have the option to finance. Say you're able to qualify for a 0.9% rate. The question you need to ask is this: do you have the ability and knowledge to go out and make a better return than what you're paying on the car? If you do, it'd be silly not to finance the car, as long as that's what you do with the cash is put it to work to create a better return. Now essentially you're using the banks money that they gave you for the car as leverage to invest, and you earn the spread. I also like Kiyosaki's example of when his wife Kim wanted a new car. He told her to figure out how much the payment on the car would be, go out and buy enough assets to cover two times what that payment would be, and then go buy the car. Using these two strategies together can be very powerful. Now you have assets creating income for you, paying for the car and bringing extra money in, and if you're using the banks financing, you keep your cash free to invest elsewhere.

Debt can be good. It can be used in very powerful ways. It can also cripple you and control your life. The biggest factor is how you use it. Educate yourself, know what you're getting into, and use debt to buy income producing assets. That's the right way to use the tool of debt.

Simon Sinek: How Great Leaders Inspire Action Commercial Real Estate