“Good debt” is often defined (by those who believe in it) as debt that’s taken out on an appreciating asset. Houses and student loans are generally lumped into that category. The idea behind taking on “good debt” is that you are risking some money now for a greater return later.

For example, you might go to college with the expectation of landing a good job upon graduation, making it easy to mentally justify taking out loans.

The problem with this thinking is that not everyone who attends college (or graduates) ends up with a good job afterwards, let alone a job that’s high-paying enough to quickly pay off student loans. This happens for a variety of reasons:

You might spend a lot of money on a degree in a profession that’s historically underpaid. (Such as teaching or social work.) You’re left with overwhelming debt and little means to repay it.

Or you may get a degree in a field that doesn’t have obviously translatable job skills, such as history or philosophy. The job you take after college may not even require a degree at all. Sure, it’s nice to have the degree, but that degree did NOT lead to greater return. Is that worth going into debt for?

Or you may get an undergraduate degree in a very specific field that IS obviously translatable, but that requires a graduate degree before even an entry-level job in that field can be obtained. If you can’t go on to graduate school (which often requires top-notch grades, fierce competition, testing, applying to multiple schools, moving, and additional time & money commitments) you may find yourself in the same boat as the person with a more general degree. In a sense this can be worse, because potential employers may review your resume and wonder why you’re applying for a completely different type of job.

You might take a job in your field, only quickly realize that it is NOT for you after all. Or you might want to be a stay at home parent. Do you want to be stuck working in a job you hate just because you have huge student loans hanging over your head?

Of course, no one goes to school with the idea that they’ll leave with some nice memories, knowledge that’s forgotten over the years, a piece of paper, and a pile of debt. Everyone thinks they’ll be the exception, and go on to make beaucoup bucks right out of college, love their jobs, and watch their lives fall exactly into place like the pieces of a puzzle.

But most people don’t.

That’s why they call it an exception. Life happens. People change. Circumstances change.

You cannot count on things going according to plan. You cannot use the phrase “education is an appreciating asset” or “I’m investing in my future” as an excuse to borrow tens of thousands of dollars because it’s “good debt” that “everyone” has.

It’s not, and they don’t.

I do believe that college is a good thing, especially if you go for reasons that are meaningful to you and you have realistic expectations about what your degree may or may not lead to. But I also believe you should do everything possible to stay out of debt while you’re doing so. Apply for scholarships, grants, jobs, employer reimbursements, go part time, do the 7 year plan, work and save up some money first, whatever it takes.

Get more from your education than the need to make a large monthly payment for the next 20+ years.