Educational Article icon Educational Article

What is Debt?

Learn to tell the difference between “better” and “worse” debt so you know when it’s smart to borrow – and which debts are best avoided.

Debt: The Basics

Debt is the amount you owe to creditors for goods and services that you buy now and promise to pay for later. When you incur debt, you are borrowing money from a lender who charges you interest or fees to use the funds. This concept is important to understand since interest costs you money!

Types of Debt

There are many kinds of debt, but the most common examples are secured debt like a mortgage or auto loan and unsecured debt like a credit card balance or a student loan. Not all debt is created equal, so financial experts suggest focusing on “better” debt if you must borrow.


Home with inviting walkway and flag flying out front

Secured Debt

The amount you borrow is backed by collateral; if you fail to repay the debt, the lender takes possession of your collateral to get their money back; auto loans and mortgages are examples of secured debt.

Stack of credit cards

Unsecured Debt

The amount you borrow is NOT backed by collateral. Lenders consider these loans to be riskier and normally charge higher interest rates. Credit cards, student loans, and personal loans are examples of unsecured debt.

“Better” debt

Borrowing money to purchase an asset you expect to increase in value over time, like a home, could be considered a good use of debt. A student loan to finance a college degree could also be considered a “better” debt if the degree leads to higher income.

“Worse” debt

Borrowing money to purchase something that will NOT increase in value could be considered a poor use of debt. Carrying a high-interest credit card balance or buying a depreciating asset such as a vehicle will normally fall into this category.

Activity: Is it Good Debt or Bad Debt?

Whether or not it is a good idea to take on debt really depends on each person or family’s unique situation. However, let’s use the broad examples below to get started.

New truck

I’m buying a brand-new truck because I can make the payment, even though it takes up 50% of my monthly take-home pay.



Handing over keys to new vehicle

I bought a certified used car with low miles to get back and forth to work. It’s not my dream car, but it fits into my budget and long-term goals.



Band performing on stage

A band I really like is coming to town and tickets are $200 each. I don’t have money saved, but I can put it on my credit card and figure it out later.



Holding credit card extended

I have a credit card that I use for my purchases, then I pay my balance in full every month.