Debt Management and Awareness: Understanding Good Debt vs. Bad Debt

Debt Management and Awareness: Understanding Good Debt vs. Bad Debt

Debt Management and Awareness: Understanding Good Debt vs. Bad Debt

In today’s complex financial landscape, it’s not uncommon for individuals to accrue debt. Whether it’s through loans, credit cards, or other financial instruments, debt has become an integral part of our lives. However, it’s essential to differentiate between “good debt” and “bad debt” to make informed decisions and maintain a healthy financial state. This article aims to shed light on this distinction and provide a clearer perspective on managing debts effectively.

What is Good Debt?

Good debt, as the term suggests, is typically seen as a beneficial financial commitment, primarily because it’s expected to generate long-term value or provide a return on investment. Here are some characteristics and examples:

Investment in the Future: A primary example of good debt is an educational loan. By borrowing money to finance education, one expects to enhance skills and qualifications, leading to better job prospects and higher income in the future. Appreciating Assets: Mortgages are often classified as good debt. While the initial outlay can be significant, homes generally appreciate over time, leading to increased net worth. Boosts Income or Value: Business loans can also fall under this category if the funds are used to expand or improve a business, leading to increased profits.

Scenario: Jane is considering buying a house in Nairobi. The house is priced at KES 10 million. She’s been told that real estate in this particular area has been appreciating at an average of 5% annually for the past decade. She plans to make a down payment of KES 2 million and take out a mortgage for the remaining KES 8 million.

Mortgage Details:

Amount borrowed: KES 8 million Interest rate: 8% annually Loan term: 20 years Monthly Repayment Calculation: Using a standard mortgage calculator, her monthly payment, which includes both the principal and the interest, would be approximately KES 67,500.

Total Cost of the Mortgage Over 20 Years: 20 years (or 240 months) x KES 67,500 = KES 16.2 million

House Value Appreciation Over 20 Years: Assuming a conservative 5% annual appreciation in property value, in 20 years, the house’s worth would be about KES 26.5 million.

Net Gain: Value of the house after 20 years - Total amount paid (Down payment + Mortgage payments) = KES 26.5 million - (KES 2 million + KES 16.2 million) = KES 8.3 million.

Analysis: In this scenario, Jane’s decision to take on the debt of KES 8 million has led to a net gain of KES 8.3 million over 20 years. This doesn’t account for other potential costs, like property maintenance or possible rent savings, but it demonstrates the potential financial benefit of taking on good debt. Her property serves as an appreciating asset, which, when combined with the fixed interest rate, means that while her payments remained constant, the value of her asset grew, netting her a substantial profit over two decades.

It’s essential to remember that while historical data can provide some guidance, property markets can be volatile. As with all investments, there’s no guaranteed return. However, in cases like this example, taking on debt can lead to significant long-term financial gains.

What is Bad Debt?

Bad debt, in contrast, doesn’t enhance your financial situation or have long-term value. Instead, it often results from purchasing depreciating assets or items that don’t generate any return. Key points include:

Depreciating Assets: Borrowing money to buy items that lose value over time, such as cars (which depreciate the moment they’re driven off the lot), can be considered bad debt. High-Interest Rates: Credit card debt is a prime example. If not managed properly, the high interest can lead to a debt spiral, where one borrows more to pay off existing debt, perpetuating a cycle. Non-Essential Luxuries: Taking on debt to finance vacations, high-end gadgets, or designer clothes can quickly become burdensome, especially if one struggles to repay it.

Scenario: John has a credit card with a limit of KES 300,000. Over the course of a year, he uses it to make various non-essential purchases like high-end electronics, clothes, and dining out, maxing out his limit. He only makes the minimum payment each month, which is 5% of the outstanding balance.

Credit Card Details:

Outstanding balance: KES 300,000 Annual interest rate (APR): 20% Monthly Interest Calculation (First Month): Interest for the month = (20/12)% of KES 300,000 = KES 5,000.

Monthly Minimum Payment (First Month): 5% of KES 300,000 = KES 15,000.

After making the minimum payment, the outstanding balance for the next month isn’t just KES 285,000 (which is KES 300,000 - KES 15,000). It’s KES 290,000 because of the interest that gets added (KES 285,000 + KES 5,000).

Continuing this process: If John continues only paying the minimum, his balance decreases very slowly due to the accumulating interest. Even after a year, he would still owe a significant portion of the original amount, having paid a substantial amount in interest.

Total Cost if Only Minimum Payment is Made: Using a credit card repayment calculator and factoring in the interest, if John only makes the minimum payment every month, it would take him over 11 years to pay off the KES 300,000, and he would end up paying nearly KES 187,000 in interest alone, making the total repayment approximately KES 487,000 for a KES 300,000 debt.

Analysis: In this example, John’s decision to make non-essential purchases and then only pay the minimum required amount has nearly doubled his actual expenditure over the 11-year period. This is why credit card debt, especially when used for non-essential items and not managed efficiently, can be a clear example of bad debt. The high interest rapidly inflates the original amount spent, making the items purchased far more expensive than their original price tags.

This example illustrates the importance of understanding the terms of credit card debt and the potential pitfalls of letting high-interest debt accumulate. It’s always advisable to pay off the full balance or as much of it as possible each month to avoid spiraling interest costs.

Striking a Balance

While the classification above simplifies the concept, it’s crucial to understand that not all good debt is entirely beneficial, and not all bad debt is entirely detrimental. For instance, taking an enormous educational loan for a course with uncertain job prospects might not always yield the expected return on investment. Similarly, using a credit card responsibly, while often seen as bad debt, can help build credit history.

Tips for Managing Debt

Awareness: Regularly review your debts. Understand interest rates, repayment terms, and the total amount owed. Budgeting: Create a budget that accounts for all monthly expenses, including debt repayments. Stick to it. Prioritize High-Interest Debt: If you have multiple debts, consider paying off the ones with the highest interest rates first. Seek Counseling: If you find yourself overwhelmed, consider seeking debt counseling or management services. Avoid Unnecessary Borrowing: Ask yourself if the debt you’re about to take on will add value or generate a return in the future.


Understanding the nature of your debts is the first step in effective debt management. By discerning between good and bad debt, you can strategize repayments, make informed borrowing decisions, and work towards a more secure financial future.