Debt Management Basics
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Good debt vs. bad debt

"Home values have increased an average of 6.5 percent a year over the past 30 years," says Bach. "So when you borrow to buy a home, chances are that's good debt. You'll build value."

Bach heavily promotes the idea of homeownership, saying that everyone needs to own where they live. "About 40 percent of Americans are renters," says Bach, "and the fastest way to wealth in America is buying where you live."

Bach cites some shocking numbers to back this up. "The average renter has a median net worth of $4,000, and the average homeowner has a median net worth of about $150,000."

Manning also emphasizes what a good time this is to build wealth through debt. "This is the most advantageous time ever to be in debt," says Manning, "in terms of opportunities to get low-interest loans or to renegotiate or refinance."

Duh, debt?

One of the reasons so many Americans seem mired in bad debt (Bach reports that the average American carries approximately $8,400 in credit card debt) is that financial education is practically nonexistent. "This type of commonsense stuff isn't taught in school," says Bach, "and most Americans don't realize how bad high-rate credit cards are hurting them."

Fitzgerald advises teaching your children the difference between good debt (debt that's used to buy assets that grow in value over time) and bad debt (debt that's used to buy things that will lose value) early on.

Gelb opts for a more hands-on approach. "Give your children an allowance (without strings) beginning when they're in kindergarten and offer them the opportunity to perform extra jobs around the house for money. Stop buying them everything, and teach them how to make choices with their own money-buying decisions." The mistakes they make will help them learn and grow.

"People are getting in debt before they have a job," says Manning. "Education is important. We used to encourage kids to save, and that has been missed. Students now refer to their credit cards as 'yuppie food stamps'. They see cards as entitlement, and see they will be in debt all their lives."

Fitzgerald recommends teaching by example. Treat credit cards like emergency safety nets and your children will likely learn some money management skills. "If you have to use your credit card, immediately revise your budget, paring back on nonessential spending. Allocate the saved dollars to a pay-off plan to bring your debt balance down to zero as soon as possible," she says.

Leslie Hunt contributed to this story.

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