Outdated Debt Advice You Shouldn’t Follow Anymore

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America is a country drowning in debt. But it’s also a country drowning in misinformation about debt — how to manage it, how to avoid it, what part of it to fear and what part of it to embrace. Much of that misinformation wasn’t misinformation at all in years gone by. Advice that might have been perfectly relevant in a different era doesn’t always stand the test of time. Avoid the following outdated debt myths at all costs.  

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Debt Is Bad. Period.

It’s no secret that debt is the root of plenty of financial evil, but not all debt is created equal.

“Taking on debt for an important, well-considered, long-term purpose can be a good financial strategy,” said Eric Dunn, CEO of Quicken, America’s bestselling personal finance software. “Many students have to borrow to pay for college or graduate programs, but the payout on investing in your education can be substantial. And almost everyone needs to borrow to purchase a home. But you should try to avoid taking on debt to buy things that are optional/nice to have.”

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Never Invest Until You’re Out of Debt

Older people tend to think of investing while in debt the same way you might think of a smoker taking up exercise — no positive changes you make will matter until after you quit the thing that’s killing you. Nowadays, it’s just not that simple. 

It is no longer a good idea to wait until you’ve paid off all of your debt to start investing,” said Sam Zelinka, owner of GovWorkerFI, a personal finance website for federal employees. “Right now, interest rates for housing, cars, and certain student loans are extremely low. If you decide to pay off all of your debt before you start investing, you’re losing out on the opportunity to have your money start compounding. Instead, it makes sense mathematically to pay off these loans while you’re investing. The exception to this is high-interest loans, like credit cards, which you will want to pay off as soon as possible.”

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Always Run a Small Balance on Your Credit Cards

One debt myth with frustrating staying power says that lenders like to see at least some balance on a borrower’s credit cards. The keyword is “myth.” 

“I hear the advice all the time that you should never pay off your credit cards completely if you want a higher credit score,” said Tomy Boboy, a personal finance expert and former investment advisor. “People will tell you to leave a small balance to increase your score. That’s completely false. You should always pay down your credit cards to avoid paying interest. If you don’t carry a balance month to month, that helps you earn the most points in that category of your credit score.”

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If Possible, Always Pay Off Your Mortgage Early

A home is the biggest asset and biggest expense for nearly all Americans. The longstanding advice has been to do everything within your power to eliminate that debt, even if it’s at the expense of just about everything else. 

“One piece of advice I keep hearing over and over again is that if you have the money for it, it’s better to pay off your mortgage as quickly as possible,” said John Pham, founder of the personal finance site The Money Ninja. “That may have been true at one point, but it’s terrible advice today and has been for the past decade. Mortgage rates have been at historic lows for quite some time and it’s not uncommon for people to get 30-year conventional loans at 2.5% APY. That’s very cheap debt. Instead of paying that off as quickly as possible, you could funnel the extra money you have into other investments like stocks for 30 years. Over that time period, the investment gain you’ll make off the stock market will likely be much more than the money you saved if you had paid off your low-interest mortgage early.” 

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Treat Student Loans Like Any Other Debt

America’s student debt crisis has been well documented, but many borrowers make the mistake of lumping student loans together with the rest of their debt — but student debt is a completely different animal.

“The false thinking here is that student loans should be treated like any other debt,” said Erik Kroll, a certified financial planner and owner of Student Loans Over. “Borrowers often ignore the flexible repayment options and forgiveness programs that exist, which can cost them tens of thousands. With the high student debt loads that borrowers take on nowadays, forgiveness programs can make a lot of sense. If planned for properly, you can even pay less to your student loans than the balance itself.”

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Last updated: Sept. 29, 2021

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About the Author

Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street's investment community in New York City.
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