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The surprising downside to being debt free

There are some upsides to debt. (Dennis Steshenko/Getty)

There are some upsides to debt — taking a once-in-a-lifetime trip, for one. (Dennis Steshenko/Getty)

We’ve all done it. We’ve all bitten off more debt than we can swallow: borrowing to go to school, borrowing to buy a house, borrowing to pay for that nice holiday to the Caribbean. As we move to a cashless society, it’s even easier these days to just pull out our credit card to pay for croissant and coffee rather than digging around for change. In many ways, debt is all about convenience.

But what happens if we always struggle to pay the bill at end of the month? We turned to question-and-answer-site Quora for some advice on whether it is really a worthy goal to be debt free.  Here’s what some respondents had to say about borrowing.

What kind of debt?

That burning question is “missing an important qualifier: the type of debt incurred,” said Konstantinos Boulis. “Consumer debt must be avoided like the plague. When you buy anything worth $100 and you pay it back in one year you will pay on average about $120. This is just dumb. You not only bought something that you probably didn't need but also paid 20% more.”
 
Investment debt, he continued, is a “whole different game and you should be making controlled decisions on what to invest in and what not to. Getting a mortgage in today's market with a 30-year APR [annual percentage rate] of 3.5% is probably a very good move given the right circumstances.”

If you still think that debt is evil “then that's ok, you will be able to sleep better at night,” he added. “It's just that the bed may not be that comfortable and your house smaller than what you wanted.”

A useful tool

In some cases, debt should be embraced as a way to create an awesome life, according to Jeremy Karmel. “For many people debt is an extremely useful tool for achieving that goal.”

Karmel cites the cost of education as one place where debt is justifiable. “If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer and you don't come from an extremely wealthy family, good luck trying to do those things without borrowing money for school.

“Taking on a lot of debt is a HUGE commitment” he continued. “You should really have a realistic plan for paying it back. That said, for many people borrowing is extremely freeing, it lets them pursue their dreams years earlier than they otherwise would have been able to.” 

Unmissed opportunity

You should buy things you need at the time you need them most, said Vivek Nagarajan. “I borrowed money to buy a motorbike,” he said. “I borrowed money to go live in a faraway country to marry the person I loved. I borrowed for various things that gave me great joy, like taking a month off and riding a motorbike in Ladakh for 18 days.” The list goes on.

“All in all I have been in constant credit card debt since the past 10 years,” he continued.

“But, my income has always been enough to cover my payments, and while I may have paid a premium of 20% or so overall due to interest and fees, my income has grown by a factor of 10 or 1000% since 2003, so the math works in favour of buying now and not worrying later. Had I postponed my purchases until I had ‘saved up’ it would have been much too late and a huge waste of time.”

Age appropriate?

Marc Bodnick made the point that the appropriateness of debt can depend on your age. While you are young and just getting started in your career, debt is more acceptable. But over time, once you have greater earning power, you should avoid it. “Debt is constraining. It keeps you from being able to make long-term good choices about your life. You want to be able to take lots of risks and fail (more than once) and debt keeps you from rolling the dice.”

Running the numbers

It all depends on whether your return on the money is greater than your cost, Gil Eyal said. “Simply put, if you could borrow at a 2% rate and be guaranteed to make 5%, you should strive to be in as much debt as possible,” he said. “This actually isn't that far-fetched. If you are a great real estate investor for example, you would always try to finance part of your deals with low cost debt, knowing you are making money on other people’s dime and spreading your own over more deals.”

A cultural view

Jett Fein offers a different perspective. “It depends on how you think about debt,” he said. “Different cultures have radically different views on debt. The Tiv of West Africa have one of the most interesting perspectives on debt that I've encountered: they view indebtedness as a good thing because it implies you will have continuing and long lasting interpersonal relationships.”

Becoming a slave

Some respondents take the higher moral ground, saying you should avoid debt at all costs. “Debt is slavery,” said Brian Fey. “It is better to die a free man than to live as a slave.

Phil Bradford sums it up with a verse from the Bible: “‘The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.”

And Amadasun Efe compares debt to climbing a mountain with a backpack full of rocks.  “The bigger the debt gets, the bigger the rocks get,” he wrote. “Soon enough the force pulling you down will be more than you can overcome, and then it's all downhill from there. 

Everybody else is moving up faster than you are because they don't have anything holding them back. In a sense, they are free. You on the other hand have become a physical and mental slave to the boulder of debt that is crushing you. All you can think of is how to get rid of the weight on your back, because it has become an unhealthy obsession.”

Now freedom, Efe said, is another thing altogether. “Suddenly [you are] in a state of mind where everything seems possible. Obstacles are merely a construct, not a reality; and you can think uninhibitedly. Clearly you are in a better place. A worthy place. A place where you are truly in control.”

Are you debt free or debt ridden? Share your thoughts and experiences on BBC Capital's Facebook page or message us on Twitter @BBC_Capital

Quora respondents are required to use their true names under the site’s Real Names policy. To help ensure legitimacy and quality, Quora asks some individuals, such as doctors and lawyers, to confirm their expertise.