Client outcomes

Helping clients understand good debt vs. bad debt

May 31, 2024
A woman reviewing documents with her clients

Key Takeaways:

  • Debt is often regarded as something to avoid at all costs. But that’s not necessarily true—and you can help your clients understand why debt is sometimes categorized as good or bad.
  • “Good debt” typically includes mortgage loans, student loans, and business loans.
  • “Bad debt” is typically characterized by high-interest rates and the purchase of depreciating assets or non-essential goods.

Debt is often painted with a broad brush as something to avoid at all costs. As a financial professional however, you know that’s not necessarily true. Depending on your clients’ situation, debt can be detrimental to their holistic financial picture, or it could be considered an investment with the potential to enhance their financial position over time. When properly managed, debt can be a powerful tool for wealth building and financial stability. Being able to communicate the distinction between good debt and bad debt is crucial for helping clients develop sound financial strategies and build financial security.

What constitutes good debt?

Good debt is generally considered an investment that enhances one’s financial position over time. Here are some key characteristics:

  • Growth Potential: Good debt is typically used to acquire assets that have the potential to increase in value or generate income.
  • Lower Interest Rates: Often, good debt comes with lower interest rates, making it more manageable and less of a financial burden.
  • Tax Advantages: Certain types of debt, like mortgages and student loans, offer tax benefits that can further enhance their value.

Examples of good debt

  • Mortgage Loans: A mortgage is often considered good debt because it allows individuals to own property, which is likely to appreciate over time. Additionally, mortgage interest payments can be tax-deductible. When utilizing this kind of debt, it’s important to emphasize the importance of buying within one’s means.
  • Student Loans: Investing in education can lead to higher earning potential and better career opportunities. While student loans do carry risks if not managed properly, they are generally seen as an investment in one’s future. Additionally, there may be federal or employer sponsored programs to help minimize this kind of debt, as well as scholarships and grants.
  • Business Loans: Taking out a loan to start or expand a business can be considered good debt, provided the business plan is sound and the potential for growth is substantial.

What constitutes bad debt?

Bad debt, on the other hand, is typically characterized by high-interest rates and the purchase of depreciating assets or non-essential goods. This type of debt can quickly spiral out of control and negatively impact one’s financial health.

  • High-Interest Rates: Bad debt often comes with exorbitant interest rates that make repayment difficult and costly.
  • Depreciating Assets: Debt incurred to purchase items that lose value over time, such as cars or consumer electronics, is generally considered bad debt.
  • Lack of ROI: Bad debt does not contribute to long-term financial growth or stability.

Examples of bad debt

  • Credit Card Debt: Credit cards are notorious for their high-interest rates and can quickly become unmanageable if not paid off monthly. Using credit cards for non-essential purchases is a common source of bad debt. You can encourage clients to use credit cards responsibly and to pay off balances in full each month. Setting up automatic payments to avoid late fees and additional interest can also be beneficial.
  • Payday Loans: These short-term, high-interest loans can trap borrowers in a cycle of debt and should be avoided whenever possible. You can educate clients on the dangers of payday loans and offer alternatives, such as personal loans or credit union services, and highlight the importance of emergency savings to avoid the need for such loans.
  • Auto Loans for Luxury Vehicles: While transportation is a necessity, overspending on luxury cars can lead to significant financial strain due to rapid depreciation and high monthly payments. You can advise clients to purchase reliable, affordable vehicles within their budget, emphasizing the long-term financial impact of high monthly payments and depreciation.

Strategies for financial professionals to educate clients

Understanding the difference between good debt and bad debt is just the first step. As a financial professional, you can also proactively educate clients and help them implement strategies that support their financial well-being:

  • Create tailored financial plans that take into account individual goals, risk tolerance, and current financial situations.
  • Conduct thorough assessments of clients’ financial health.
  • Develop detailed, actionable plans that prioritize good debt and minimize bad debt.
  • Host workshops or webinars focused on financial literacy, emphasizing the distinction between good and bad debt.
  • Develop engaging content that resonates with clients of varying financial backgrounds.
  • Provide resources, such as informational handouts and access to financial management tools.
  • Regularly review clients’ financial progress and adjust plans as necessary. Continuous support and monitoring can help clients stay on track and make informed decisions.

By helping clients understand the nuances of debt and providing them with the tools and knowledge they need to spend responsibly, you can empower them to achieve financial success and stability. Remember, debt is not inherently bad; it’s how we manage and leverage it that makes all the difference. Let’s empower our clients to not just manage their debt but to use it as a tool for building a robust financial future.


  • Nationwide and its representatives do not give legal or tax advice. An attorney or tax advisor should be consulted for answers to specific questions.