What is the Debt to Income Ratio?

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One of the great things about credit is that it lets you make purchases you wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford at one time. But this arrangement only works if you are able to make your monthly payments. That’s why lenders look at something called your debt to income ratio. It’s a number that indicates what kind of debt load you’ll be able to afford. And if you’re looking to borrow, it’s a number you’ll want to know. 

Unless your rich eccentric uncle suddenly dies and leave you a giant pile of money, making any large purchase, like a car or a home, is going to mean taking out a loan. Legitimate loans spread the repayment process over time (or a longer term), which makes owning these incredibly expensive items possible for regular folks.

But not all loans are affordable. If the loan’s monthly payments take up too much of your budget, then you’re likely to default. And as much as you, the borrower, do not want that to happen, it’s also something that lenders want to avoid at all costs.

It doesn’t matter how much you want that cute, three-bedroom Victorian or that sweet, two-door muscle car (or even if you’re just looking for a personal loan to consolidate your higher interest credit card debt). If you can’t afford your monthly payments, reputable lenders aren’t going to want to do business with you. (Predatory payday lenders are a different story, they actually want you to be unable to afford your loan. You can read more about that shadiness in our personal loans guide.)

So how do mortgage, car, and personal lenders determine what a person can afford before they lend them? Well, they usually do it by looking at their debt to income ratio.

What is the debt to income ratio?

Basically, it’s the amount of your monthly budget that goes towards paying debts—including rent or mortgage payments.

“Your debt to income ratio is benchmark metric used to measure an individual’s ability to repay debt and manage their monthly payments,” says Brian Woltman, branch manager at Embrace Home Loans (@EmbraceHomeLoan).

“Your ‘DTI’ as it’s commonly referred to is exactly what it sounds like. It’s calculated by dividing your total current recurring monthly debt by your gross monthly income—the amount you make before any taxes are taken out,” says Woltman. “It’s important because it helps a lender to determine the proper amount of money that someone can borrow, and reasonably expect to be paid back, based on the terms agreed upon.”

According to Gerri Detweiler (@gerridetweiler), head of market education for Nav (@navSMB), “Your debt to income ratio provides important information about whether you can afford the payment on your new loan.”

“On some consumer loans, like mortgages or auto loans, your debt to income ratio can make or break your loan application,” says Detweiler. “This ratio typically compares your monthly recurring debt payments, such as credit card minimum payments, student loan payments, mortgage or auto loans to your monthly gross (before tax) income.”

Here’s an example…

Larry has a monthly income of $5,000 and a list of the following monthly debt obligations:

Rent: $1,200

Credit Card: $150

Student Loan: $400

Installment Loan: $250

Total: $2,000

To calculate Larry’s DTI we need to divide his total monthly debt payments by his monthly income:

$2,000 / $5,000 = .40

Larry’s debt to income ratio is 40 percent.

David Reiss (@REFinBlog), is a professor of real estate finance at Brooklyn Law School. He says that the debt to income ratio is an important metric for lenders because “It is one of the three “C’s” of loan underwriting:

Character: Does a person have a history of repaying debts?

Capacity: Does a person have the income to repay debts?

Capital: Does the person have assets that can be used to retire debt if income should prove insufficient?

What is a good debt to income ratio?

“If you listen to Ben Franklin, who subscribed to the saying ‘neither a borrower nor lender be,’ the ideal ratio is 0,” says Reiss. But he adds that only lending to people with no debt whatsoever would put home ownership out of reach for, well, almost everyone. Besides, a person can have some debt on-hand and still be a responsible borrower.

“More realistically, in today’s world,” says Reiss, “we might take guidance from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) which advises against having a DTI ratio of greater than 43 percent. If it creeps higher than that, you might have trouble paying for other important things like rent, food and clothing.”

“Requirements vary but usually if you can stay below a 33 percent debt-to-income ratio, you’re fine,” says Detweiler. “Some lenders will lend up to a 50 percent debt ratio, but the interest rate may be higher since that represents a higher risk.”

For Larry, the guy in our previous example, a 33 percent DTI would mean keeping his monthly debt obligations to $1650.

Let’s go back to that 43 percent number that Reiss mentioned because it isn’t just an arbitrary number. 43 percent DTI is the highest ratio that borrower can have and still receive a “Qualified Mortgage.”

What’s a Qualified Mortgage?

Qualified Mortgages are home loans that follow certain guidelines designed to make them safe. The lenders that issue these loans make an effort to determine a borrower’s ability to repay the loan, which is a hallmark of safe, socially responsible lending.

According to the CFPB, in order to be classified as “Qualified” a mortgage must not have loan terms longer than 30 years; include any “interest-only” periods, during which borrowers only makes payments towards the interest (not the principal); “balloon payments,” which are are larger than normal payments that come towards the end of the loan’s repayment period; or “negative amortization,” which can lead to your loan principal increasing over time.

There are some exceptions to the 43 percent DTI rule for Qualified Mortgages. For instance, lenders under a certain size can issue mortgages to customers with a higher DTI. However, if you have a DTI above 43 percent, you will generally find that it’s harder to get a Qualified Mortgage. Not only will you see higher interest rates on your loan, you are more likely to be offered predatory terms—like the ones mentioned above—that make it much harder to repay.

What’s not included in your debt to income ratio?

“Keep in mind that not all payments are included in this calculation,” says Detweiler. “For example, your utilities or cell phone payment won’t likely factor in. Rent may or may not factor in, depending on the type of loan. Also, remember the lender will factor in the anticipated monthly payment from the loan you are trying to get into the calculation.”

That’s why including your current rent is the trickiest part of the DTI calculation. Remember, if you are currently renting but are applying for a home mortgage loan, then your monthly rent payments will no longer factor into your DTI once you own a home.

So while calculating your current debt to income ratio (including your monthly rent) might be helpful, the number that really matters is the debt to income ratio that includes your mortgage payments.

“It’s important though to take into account the amount of money you’re comfortable with paying on a monthly basis,” says Woltman. “Too many times people ask the question ‘How much can I qualify for?’ when in actuality they should be asking ‘How much can I borrow to keep my payment at $XXX per month?’ It’s important to know what you’re willing to spend and work from there.”

Here’s how you can improve your debt to income ratio…

“Borrow less and earn more,” advises Reiss. “If you have debt, work to pay it off, starting with your high-cost debt, such as credit card balances.”

“For anyone looking to improve their DTI when considering buying a house it’s very easy to do,” says Woltman. “Take a look at your credit profile and single out credit cards or loan payments that have low balances but high monthly minimum payments. That not only signifies high-interest rates, but it’s a target for accounts you can pay to $0 and not incur a financial burden paying off.”

“Be careful though,” he warns. “If you have a car lease that only has a few payments left, do not pay that off to lower your DTI because, unless you bought the car, the lender will assume you’re going to lease a new vehicle and still count that payment against you.”

“Borrow less and earn more,” advises Reiss. “If you have debt, work to pay it off, starting with your high-cost debt, such as credit card balances.”

One thing that will really hurt your debt to income ratio is getting trapped in a cycle of debt from a predatory payday lender. To learn more about them, check out the eBook How to Protect Yourself from Payday Loans and Predatory Lenders—or just give us a follow on Twitter at @OppLoans.


 Contributors 

Gerri Detweiler’s passion is helping individuals cut through credit confusion. She’s written five books, including the free ebook Debt Collection Answers: How to Use Debt Collection Laws to Protect Your Rights, and her latest, Finance Your Own Business. Her articles have been widely syndicated and she’s been interviewed in over 3000 news stories. She serves as Head of Market Education for Nav, the first and only site that shows small business owners their free business and personal credit scores and tools for building strong business credit.

David Reiss is a professor at Brooklyn Law School and director of academic programs at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship. He is the editor of REFinBlog.com, which tracks developments in the changing world of residential real estate finance.

Brian Woltman is the Branch Manager for Embrace Home Loans in Basking Ridge, NJ. Over the course of his 13-year career, he has helped countless families achieve their dreams of homeownership. He’s helped everyone ranging from first-time home buyers to seasoned real estate investors. If you’re looking for a mortgage professional that will always look out for your best interests, give Brian Woltman a call today at (908)-295-4891, connect on Facebook or email him at BWoltman@EmbraceHomeLoans.com.