Managing debt

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Managing debt, or responsible borrowing, can help build a good credit history but overuse of credit to spend beyond your means can create problems and should generally be avoided where possible. “Good debt” is sometimes used to describe types of borrowing that can help improve your overall financial health over time. For example, a student loan to help pay for education can pay off by helping you get a job with a higher income.[1]

On the other hand, borrowing to buy things that you consume or that have only short-term value is generally considered “bad debt.” For example, going into debt for a vacation means that you will be paying for this long after you have enjoyed the short-term benefits.[1]


According to Statistics Canada’s 2012 Survey of Financial Security[2]:

  • One-quarter of family units had lines of credit in 2012, up from 15% in 1999. The median line of credit debt was $15,000 in 2012, up from $6,600 in 1999.
  • There were increases in both the share of family units with a vehicle loan (from 21% in 1999 to 29% in 2012) and the median amount owed (from $11,800 in 1999 to $15,000 in 2012).
  • About 40% of Canadian family units carried an outstanding balance on their credit cards in 2012. The median amount was $3,000 in 2012, up 25% from 1999.

Clearly, avoiding such debts is difficult for many Canadians, and the problem has been worsening. In 1980, the ratio of household debt to personal disposable income was 66%.[3] At the end of 2014, the ratio stood at a record 163%.[4] The majority of household debts are in the form of mortgages, but in 2012, about 30% of the debt was consumer credit (lines of credit, credit cards, personal loans, car loans, etc).[5] Also, some of the mortgage debt consists of home equity extraction (mortgage refinancing) to finance consumer spending.[6] According to the Bank of Canada[5],

“significant gains in house prices, which have raised the amount of home equity against which households can borrow, have encouraged strong growth in secured consumer borrowing (HELOCs). Also driving consumer credit is financial innovation, which has expanded the range and marketing of credit products, making them more appealing and accessible to households”.

Avoiding "bad" debt

The following sections give some ideas on thinking long-term; this is the best way to avoid "bad" debt.

Emergency fund

Main article: Emergency fund

People sometimes get into debt because of an unexpected life event such as loss of employment, etc. An emergency fund is a cash reserve that allows you to face such events without getting into debt or having to sell long-term investments.

Household budget

Main article: Budgeting

If you tend to spend more than you earn, you may need a household budget to stay out of debt and save money for goals such as retirement, a down payment on a home, holidays, or big purchases.

Car loans

Cars are expensive, so you will probably need another car loan when the current car is paid off, or when the rental agreement ends, right? Doesn’t everybody have a car loan these days anyway? This attitude has been referred to as the “car loan merry-go-round”[7], but there are better, less expensive ways.

The old-fashioned idea is to pay cash for your next car, instead of taking a loan. Paying cash will typically require saving regularly in order to reach this goal. If the amount needed to pay cash for your next car seems too much, maybe you should not be purchasing a brand new car, or you should select a less expensive model![7]

A home you can afford

Whether you choose to own a home or rent it, paying more than you can afford on housing will strain your finances, and could make it more difficult to save money every month and avoid debt.

Home renovations can be expensive endeavours. While renovations can increase your home resale value, the resale price increase is typically less than 100% of the cost of renovations, and for some projects is less than 50%. Financing renovations through debt (typically through increased mortgages or HELOCs) may encourage the homeowner to spend more than if renovations were paid for with available cash.

Credit cards

Main article: Credit card

If you are paying your credit card balance in full each and every month, and you are avoiding cash advances, you are using your card wisely[8]: the credit card company is supplying you with the equivalent of one month of expenses interest-free, and you may be getting cash back or travel rewards from using your card.

But buying stuff with your credit card that you don’t have the cash to pay for spells trouble later. If you find yourself doing that, maybe a debit card is a better choice, or even actual cash. Some people use jars with predefined amounts of cash for specific budget items.[9]

Buy now, pay later

Also known as a deferred payment plan, these programs are marketing schemes at best. If you think that the company is allowing you to delay your payments free of charge, think again. There may often be fees to defer the payment.[10]

Additionally, the company is counting on you to miss a payment. When that happens, you could be paying an annual interest rate of 28% to 30% and will accrue from the day of purchase - not from the missed payment date.[10][11]

Instead, take that same payment amount and "pay yourself" by saving the money as part of your household budget. When you've saved up the total amount, then pay for it with cash. The result will be a lower total cost, and you won't be penalized if you miss a payment.

If you really need a big-ticket item that can't be paid for with cash, consider taking a line of credit, which will likely have a lower interest rate.

Personal loans, lines of credit

Personal loans are a type of loan in which a borrower gets a fixed dollar amount and agrees to repay that amount plus interest over a fixed period of time.[12] A line of credit is a type of loan that lets you borrow money up to a preset limit. You can use the funds as needed, up to a specified maximum and pay the loan back at any time. You are charged interest from the day you withdraw money, until you pay the loan back in full.[13]

Before you take a personal loan or draw on a line of credit, ask yourself if you really need the money now. Can the purchase wait? Is that purchase wanted or needed? Why not save for it?

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, Good debt and bad debt, viewed March 18, 2015
  2. Statistics Canada, Survey of Financial Security, 2012, viewed March 21, 2015
  3. R.K. Chawla and S. Uppal, Household debt in Canada, Statistics Canada, Perspectives on Labour and Income March 23, 2012, viewed March 21, 2015
  4. G. Marr, Canada household debt ratio hits new record of 163.3%, National Post, March 12, 2015, viewed March 21, 2015
  5. 5.0 5.1 Bank of Canada, Household spending and debt, December 2012, viewed March 21, 2015
  6. Bank of Canada, Household finances and financial stability
  7. 7.0 7.1 L.F. Dogu, Five ways to get off the car loan merry-go-round, Forbes magazine online, The Bogleheads® view, October 8, 2010, viewed March 18, 2015
  8. Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, Be smart with your credit card: Tips to help you use your credit card wisely, viewed March 21, 2015
  9. G. Vaz-Oxlade, The “Magic” Jars, viewed March 21, 2015
  10. 10.0 10.1 Buy Now...Pay Later, from Debt Canada: Your Canadian Credit Education Centre, viewed March 29, 2015
  11. G. Binks, Deferred interest, payment plans tricky to maneuver, October 3, 2014, viewed March 30, 2015
  12. Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, Personal loans, viewed March 18, 2015
  13. Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, Lines of credit, viewed March 18, 2015

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