Secured and Unsecured Debt

Given all the attention generally paid to mortgages, and especially recently, you might think that the basic principles might be widely understood.  Alas, no.  See, for example, and I cite it only as a typical example, Suze Orman’s 2009 Action Plan, in which she addresses the advisability of borrowing using a Victorian House HELOC (Home Equity Line of Credit, essentially a second mortgage on your house) to pay off credit card debt.

Do not do this.  Even if you have enough equity to keep your HELOC open, this is a dangerous mistake.  You are putting your house at risk.  When you borrow from your HELOC, your home is the collateral.  [page  30.]

That has a strong, almost visceral, intuitive appeal.  And as strident as Orman is, she is fairly typical in her warnings against “putting your house at risk.”  (See this from the Times a while back.)  But it is pretty poor advice for many, probably most, people.

A mortgage on your house is a cheap loan, in all likelihood the lowest cost way you have to borrow money.  The difference in interest rates between a credit card and a mortgage or a HELOC could be large, five or ten percent, even before considering that the mortgage interest is likely to be tax-deductible.  That’s real money.  The downside is that the loan is secured by your house.  That’s not nothing, but it would only become meaningful in certain circumstances. Consider the following possible outcomes.

Scenario 1: You eventually pay off all your debts in full.  If you used a HELOC rather than a credit card, the fact that more of it was secured by your house means that you paid a much lower interest rate before it was paid off.

Scenario 2: You file for bankruptcy.  Actually this is two scenarios and the difference between the two hinges on state-specific details of bankruptcy law.  If bankruptcy is a meaningful possibility for you, stop reading this now and go find somebody knowledgeable in your local area to help you out.  If you are just interested in a generic understanding, continue on.

There is a thing called a homestead exemption.  Basically, you get to shield $X of home equity from your creditors in the bankruptcy process.  The catch is that you cannot shield it from secured creditors, i.e. the mortgage holder(s).  And just to keep it exciting, the value of X varies implausibly from state to state.  My own beloved Commonwealth of Massachusetts gives us $500,000, while Kentucky residents get only $5,000.  You can find out more about each state here, but seriously, if your interest is more than academic call a local bankruptcy lawyer.

Scenario 2A: The mortgage/HELOC you are considering does not eat into your homestead exemption, either because you have practically no equity left in the house or so much equity that there is still more equity than homestead exemption after the new loan.  In this case, that the loan was secured is important to the lender, but not to you.  The secured lenders get paid first, leaving the unsecured ones to fight over what is left.  You get to keep the same portion of your assets, you pay out the same amount of money, it just gets split up differently.  A lot of the reason that secured debt is so much cheaper is that you are selling the lender a better place on line in case you go bankrupt.  But that place on line often costs you nothing.

Scenario 2B: The mortgage/HELOC seriously eats into your homestead exemption.  In this case a secured loan is a bad thing, because in bankruptcy you will have to use the otherwise exempted equity to pay the secured loan, while an identical unsecured loan might have been wiped out.

Scenario 3: This is the twilight zone in which you neither pay all that you owe nor file for bankruptcy.  In this case, having a secured loan might be a lot less convenient than an unsecured one.  Although an unsecured creditor can sue you for the money you owe, unless you owe rather a lot, and appear to be able to pay, they may not bother because the cost of dragging your sorry self into court is not worth it.  A secured lender can, on the other hand, foreclose on the property, which is not only easier than suing you, it has a high probability of success.  But note that a HELOC holder is less likely to foreclose.  Although a second mortgage owner has the legal right to foreclose if not paid, they would then have to pay the first mortgage holder every dime owed before getting anything themselves.  That can be problematic.

There is no question that for some people in some situations substituting a HELOC for a credit card is, indeed, a dangerous mistake.  But I do not think it is true for most people most of the time.  For most people, who will wind up paying what they owe, the practical difference between a secured and unsecured debt is a much lower interest rate.  And even for those who do fall into the uncertain world of bankruptcy and foreclosure, it’s not so clear that they are always meaningfully worse off with a secured debt.

This is one of those rare areas of finance which is not a zero-sum game.  Just because the lender is better off if the loan is secured, and is willing to pay for the privilege, it does not follow that you are worse off.  Mostly, what you are selling the lender is a better position relative to your other creditors should bad things happen.

Of course, that’s bad for the other, unsecured, creditors and the fact that you might go and put somebody in line ahead of them just to get a better deal is one of the bad parts about being an unsecured creditor. And it’s one of the reasons that they charge so much.  Put another way, credit card lenders bake into their rates a charge for the right to save money by putting somebody ahead of them on line. A reasonable person might think about taking advantage of that right.


  • By James, April 28, 2009 @ 11:17 am

    There’s also the problem of bad habits. If you’re a person that keeps balances on credit cards, and would need a HELOC to pay them off, then you’ve got bad habits.

    Paying the cards off doesn’t fix the habit. A huge number of people who consolidate their credit cards with a loan or HELOC (I’ve read something like 2/3, but I can’t find a figure right now, sorry) wind up running up their cards again. This leaves them with the same credit card debt as before, plus the same amount of debt added to their HELOC.

    It’s a recipe for disaster, a downward spiral, etc. Unless the underlying behavior is addressed, it doesn’t help anything.

    Sure, there may be the few people out there who have high balances now but normally don’t, and paying them off with the HELOC is fine. But most people in this situation are there out of habit. And once the credit cards are at zero balances, it’s very easy to justify one small thing after another until you’re back where you started.

    Personal finance isn’t just about hard numbers all the time. There’s a behavioral/psychological element that needs to be accounted for.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, April 28, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

    James: Certainly, there is a behavioral/psychological element. If there wasn’t, personal finance wouldn’t be a difficult topic. I think that Orman has in mind exactly the objection that you raise here, that a person is likely to just run up the credit card balance again if they pay it off with a HELOC. But she doesn’t say that. Instead she gives out misinformation that will, I believe, cost most people money.

    A person who owes on credit cards is probably better off paying them off with HELOC than not. If this is a problem because the only way that the person can control his spending is to have the credit cards maxed out, then that is a behaviorial/psychological problem that needs to be addressed directly. And the first step in that process is to admit that the problem exists.

  • By ryan, April 28, 2009 @ 1:21 pm


    I really enjoy your blog. It’s certainly some of the most intelligent personal finance reading out there, blog or traditional.

    But I think your core mission is just a little bit off. So 80% of your posts boil down to the following two arguments:
    1. There is often a better way for the masses to handle their money than Suze Orman or Dave Ramsey would advise.
    2. The masses are unable or unwilling to follow the better way, and Suze and Dave know this all too well, so they dumb it down or factor in expected human behavior in their prescriptions.

    The truth is that for 98% of the population, strict adherence to Suze or Dave would be a great option. If mainstream America adopted the ideals of having a nearly paid off house, no consumer debt, and a decent amount of money in their age-assigned target date fund we would be alot better off as a country. Now you’re going to respond with “But they ought to know more of the details behind this advice.” Maybe, if they want to. But most people have pretty short attention spans.

    I definitely think that you know finance better than Dave Ramsey. But Dave knows people better. Dave’s trying to help the figurative 300 lb man from killing himself by getting him walking 20 minutes a day while you’re criticizing the type of athletic socks that Dave tells him to put on before he goes for that walk.

    Yours is the only blog where I ever learn anything, where I don’t feel smarter than the author. Keep it coming.

  • By Rob Bennett, April 28, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

    The truth is that for 98% of the population, strict adherence to Suze or Dave would be a great option.

    This is such an interesting comment that I hope it’s okay if I comment on the comment rather than the blog entry (if that’s not considered acceptable, please just let me know and I won’t do it again).

    I don’t have anything in particular against either Ramsey or Orman. And it is of course true that most would be better off if they followed their advice. I do NOT think it is fair to say that the advice of any of the big names is really doing the job, however.

    My test is — Are most people handling their money well? If not, I say that the conventional advice has failed. It might be that Ramsey and Orman are better than most or worse than most; I’m not taking a position re that one. I’m saying that AS A WHOLE the personal finance gurus are not getting the job done.

    Most people blame the savers and investors for not saving and investing effectively. I see that as a cop-out. The job is to come up with a better approach, one that actually clicks with people and gets the job done.

    Orman and Ramsey are popular. That’s for sure. They have each helped a good number of people. I can go along with that claim. But I still say that they have not been truly successful. There’s an important element missing in their advice. It satisfies many people in some significant way. But the reality is that few are handling their money well today and that’s the proper test of whether today’s money advice works or not, in my opinion.

    Today’s money advice does not work. That reflects poorly on everyone in the field, including Ramsey and Orman. Better advice would produce better results.


  • By ryan, April 28, 2009 @ 4:24 pm

    Saying that “today’s money advice does not work” because “the reality is that few are handling their money well today” is like saying that eating well and exercising often do not prevent heart disease and obesity because so few people are healthy and fit (and so many die of heart disease).

    It’s not the advice that’s bad, it’s the unwillingness to follow it.

    I’m enjoying the discussion.


  • By Rob Bennett, April 28, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

    I’m okay with the comparison you are making, Ryan.

    If the level of obesity is too high, I would argue that the advice re eating and exercising is not doing too hot a job either. Perhaps we should be advising people to give up television or something like that. Perhaps we consider some things off limits that should not be viewed as off limits.

    I’m not willing to place the blame on “the unwillingness to follow it.” I of course understand the point being made. But I believe that the job is to motivate the humans. If the advice fails to motivate the humans, the advice is not good advice (in my view).

    It may be that the advice is perfect in some theoretical sense. But if it doesn’t click with the humans, what good is it in a practical sense?

    Yes, I am an idealist. I am certainly setting a high standard. However, I don’t think it is totally an unreasonable standard. We need to help people do better. Otherwise, what is the point?

    There are lots of personal finance books selling lots of copies. Are we saving more effectively as a result? Are we investing more effectively? Are we just being entertained?


  • By ryan, April 28, 2009 @ 5:09 pm

    We’re going from personal finance into philosophy.

    You write “It may be that the advice is perfect in some theoretical sense. But if it doesn’t click with the humans, what good is it in a practical sense?”

    Here, you’re essentially making the case AGAINST Frank’s blog in favor of the more pedestrian venues–no debt, prepay your mortgage, just pick a target date fund. Frank’s whole premise is to perfect the mainstream.

    For better or worse, Suze and Dave reach more people than Frank. Many are just being entertained, but I think an appreciable number have seen the light. My point is that I don’t think that’s a bad thing (unless you’re Frank). We don’t need a nation full of individual hedge fund managers; we just need people to stop overextending themselves and to save a little bit.

    To get back to the analogy of obesity I would say that sometimes advice is as good as it can realistically get. To prevent obesity, exercise more and eat less. Your hypothetical musing “perhaps we should give up television” is almost exactly analagous to Ramsey saying “No debt, ever” and that’s exactly the kind of thing this blog critiques.


  • By SJ, April 28, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

    ” If bankruptcy is a meaningful possibility for you, stop reading this now and go find somebody knowledgeable in your local area to help you out.”

    That made me laugh. Hahahaha…

    I think Ramsey should add in step 0. Have no debt =)
    And if you screw up you get to go to step 1 =/

    Also, let me say I enjoyed the last bit about finance not being a zero-sum game, cuts ftw

    Finally, you give free choice about things that can be good or bad… if people don’t follow “good” advice, well, too bad? The only thing that can be done is make the advice (decently good) and accessible.
    Rmbr captain planet, the POWER if yours!

  • By Rob Bennett, April 28, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

    We’re going from personal finance into philosophy.

    That sounds like the sort of thing I am known to do from time to time, ryan.

    I too have enjoyed the back and forth. But I think I had better drop it at this point or I will wear out my welcome here. Perhaps there will be another thread at some point where we will be able to take this up again.


  • By GPR, April 28, 2009 @ 6:55 pm

    Not to sound like a Comparative Literature major or anything, but I wonder if it is possible to separate the advice from the audience.

    Is Orman’s advice wrong for her audience?

    I don’t watch/read that much, but I thought her schtick was a sort of scolding school-marm for people who had screwed up.

    The equivalent of a personal trainer screaming at me to lay off the french fries.

    In that context, James’ first comment might be right.

  • By Roger, April 28, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

    Interesting stuff. I’m glad you ran through these scenarios; most financial commentators have a tendency to shorthand these types of discussions, to the detriment of the discussion. Noting that the second mortgage owner is unlikely to foreclose if you still owe a significant amount on your first mortgage is the sort of detail that seems to slip through in these talks.

    (In defense of Suze Orman: she does explicitly state that one reason she doesn’t like using HELOCs to pay down credit card interest is because she’s seen too many people then run up their credit cards all over again in her Money Book for the Young, Fabulous, and Broke. Why she didn’t come out right and say that that was a big objection in her 2009 Action Plan, I don’t know, but it does clarify her objections.)

  • By Debt Advice and Support, April 26, 2010 @ 7:39 am


    I of class read the tangency existence prefab. But I believe that the job is to prompt the humans. If the advice fails to cause the humans, the advice is not advantage advice.

    Debt Advice and Support

  • By Debt Relief Options, October 8, 2010 @ 5:19 am

    Read about the different scenarios pertaining to bad financial situations. More often people falls into the traps of luring advertisement of mortgage loans, and loans of many kinds. Aren’t they meant to return? then why should one fall into yet another complication in order to get rid of the present financial crisis?

  • By you have intelligent commenters commenting, January 20, 2011 @ 12:44 am

    It’s been a while since I’ve read intelligent replies to a pf blog post. Ryan – if you’re still out there —do you have a blog? I like your feedback. Agree 100% with yours and James’ insight (By James, April 28, 2009 @ 11:17 am)

    Although I don’t live in the US of A, I can understand why Orman promotes that course of action – her target audiences and readers are most likely the demographic that struggles with credit card debts from buying worthless and unnecessary consumer junk. Compulsive shoppers. Poor money handlers.

    For that demographic, her advice is probably the best advice because it accounts for their behavioural pyschology – if the credit card balance was transferred to the HELOC and the balance was at $0, then it may be likely that they will run into credit card debt again before too long.

    Orman’s advice probably tries to counteract the following typical scenario (cause Aussies are just as vulnerable and it’s not just the USA):

    EXAMPLE: Person X has credit card debt balance

    2) If X transfers the cc debt to the HELOC/and or refinanced back into the mortgage loan -> cuts up their cc and closes the cc accounts AND pays off the debt 100% -> it’s a WIN/WIN scenario

    3) If X transfers the cc debt to the HELOC/and or refinanced back into the mortgage loan -> doesn’t pay off the debt AND runs up a new debt on the cc – it’s a LOSS scenario because of two factors -

    a) The debt that they refinanced into the mortgage or HELOC is now being paid across the 20-30 year period and they end up paying more interest

    b) They couldn’t control themself and has racked up more cc debt putting themselves in the same scenario as before, only worse

    The plan of action should really depend on what the individual’s behaviour and habits. Bad habits are hard to break – hence Orman’s very ‘mainstream’ advice.

    pf fanatic

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