Debt has fueled much of the growth in the world over the last four decades. Debt has made many business owners, investors, and individuals wealthy. But debt has also been the ruin of many businesses, investors, and individuals.
The “final exam” of my MBA involved a business simulation. Each study group was tasked to run a business manufacturing hairdryers. My study group was mostly made up of bankers. When our door shut at the start, the bankers immediately said, “We need to get a line of credit.” I said, “We’re starting with a lot of available cash.” They explained that bankers only loan you money when you have money. At some point down the road, we may need money, but we should secure it in the beginning. That 10 minutes was more valuable to me than the two years that led up to it. Indeed, “down the road” the hairdryer market was booming, but we didn’t have enough cash to build a new plant. That line of credit provided the opportunity to grow our business. Our study group ended with millions of dollars more than any other study group. We had that line of credit right when we needed it while the others were just starting to negotiate with the banks.
This was a lesson in how debt can make you wealthy. The other side of that coin occurred as the housing boom went bust in 2008. There were a lot of people who borrowed money to buy a house, but didn’t have the funds to pay the debt. They lost their house and their wealth.
Debt helps magnify your return. If you want to buy a house, most people can purchase a bigger house with a loan than if they only used savings to purchase the house. If the value of that house goes up, there is a larger gain on the larger investment. But if the value of that house goes down, there is a larger loss.
So how do you use debt to your advantage? As the bankers in my MBA study group pointed out, you will only get debt when you have money. The more money you have, the more debt you will be allowed to carry. If you think like a banker, and only incur debt that you can pay off, you can use it to your advantage.
You can’t predict what’s going to happen to the housing market in the next 2-5 years, but the longer you are in the housing market, the more likely you are to see the value grow above what you invested. If you plan to stay in the housing market for the long haul, it’s fine to incur debt to purchase your home. But make sure you have enough funds to pay the mortgage for 6-12 months, even if you lose your job. This should be part of your Emergency Fund. If you don’t have enough savings to make future mortgage payments, you may find yourself in the position that so many people did in 2008 and risk losing your home.
When you buy a car, you do not typically expect it to increase in value. As a matter of fact, as soon as you drive a new car off the lot, it loses value. Buying a car with debt increases the cost of the car and therefore increases your loss. If you have a 10%, five year loan on your $20,000 car, you are really paying $25,500 for the car. In addition to the decrease in the value of the car, you are losing an extra $5,500 from interest payments. Many people lease a car instead of buying. Keep in mind this is just building the loan costs into the price of the car. Typically it’s easy to hide higher loan costs in the “low” monthly payments of a lease agreement. The more expensive the car, the more you lose in value and interest paid.
In order to sell more cars, dealers often offer 0% loan deals. This can be a way of using debt to your advantage. If you can get a 0% loan for $20,000 and then invest that money in a bond giving you 4%, you win. Make sure you have the $20,000 to pay off the loan. If the 0% interest is only for a limited time, pay the balance as soon as the interest rate goes up. Typically, if you miss a payment, you will pay high fees and/or the interest charges. So make those payments.
Bottom line, you can use debt to make money, but you can also lose money with debt. Follow some basic guidelines to use debt to your advantage.
- Make sure you have the cash to pay the debt on time. For long term debt, have enough in cash to make payments for 6-12 months.
- Use debt to increase your income, like paying for college tuition, but not for consumables like going out to eat or a nicer apartment.
- Use debt when you can invest those funds at a higher return or in a business that can make more income than the cost of the debt.
- If the item you purchase is not an investment that can increase in value, pay cash.
Debt always increases risk, but the risk can be managed if debt is used wisely.
All information provided is general in nature and not meant to be advice for you in particular. If you’d like to know more about how this topic relates to your situation, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org