Orientation: Young South African households (in which the head of the household is between 18 and 32 years old) are starting their financial life journey.Research purpose: To determine which personal conversion factors influence young adults’ choices to access the various types of debt as they age.Motivation for the study: By focusing on the role of the different personal conversion factors on the debt uptake of young households, this article furthers the discussion on the concept of financial capability, referring to the ability of young households to convert debt uptake opportunities into debt uptake outcomes.Research approach/design and method: The data were collected for the period 1999–2013 from the annual South African Advertising Research Foundation’s All Media and Products Survey (AMPS). By means of Cox proportional hazards regression models, the article determines the influence of personal conversion factors on choices to access different types of debt by young households in South Africa.Main findings: Personal conversion factors (e.g. employment status, level of education, life stage, family size, household income and the number of financial assets) significantly impact credit card uptake of these young households. Similar relationships were not found for the other five debt products that was included in the evaluation.Practical implications/managerial implications: Young households are in need of debt intervention, but they need to be fully included in developing such interventions to ensure that buy-in. The young households should also be considered high priority by all stakeholders to ensure they refrain from becoming over-indebted.Contribution/value-add: Through the application of the capability approach, this article presents an alternative approach to assess the determinants of debt product uptake over time.