We are constantly reminded about the rising level of outstanding personal debt carried by Canadians. Every few months we hear about the perils of rising interest rates that may leave many in financial difficulty.

The reality is – debt is not all bad. Most of us wouldn’t have been able to purchase our homes without a mortgage, or buy a car, or pursue secondary education. Even credit cards are not evil in and of themselves no matter how they are often portrayed.

To never (ever) borrow money is to live in the land of the already rich, or to always be a renter. At the other extreme, using other people’s money to fully finance your lifestyle is ridiculous and precarious.

Most of us don’t fall into these extreme circumstances. We hold a reasonable amount of debt, make our payments on time and have good, to very good, credit ratings. That being said, most people fail to optimize their overall debt management strategies to pay the least amount of interest.

Consolidating debts

We no longer hear about the “all-in-one” mortgages offered by financial institutions such as the Manulife ONE and National Bank All-in-One. These accounts combine chequing, savings, and borrowing into one account. If used properly, consumers could simplify their debt and lower their overall interest paid.

These won’t work for most people because they like to keep all their accounts separate. They have multiple liabilities at different interest rates:

  • Home mortgage
  • Car loan
  • Line of Credit
  • Student loan
  • Credit card to use for discounts at your favourite store
  • Credit card for other rewards.

When I worked in banking, I gave out many consolidation loans. I confiscated and cut up credit cards, cancelled overdraft protection, and closed out other loans and lines of credit. Invariably, within a couple of months, more than half of these clients would reapply for their credit cards, reinstate ODP, and sneak off to a different branch to get another line of credit.

More personal debt mismanagement

Here are some other ways people don’t think clearly about managing their personal debt.

  • Mike and Molly are determined to pay off their mortgage (2.7%) in less than 10 years. They put every available dollar towards the principal. They also have two car loans at 4.5% and 8% and purchased a “don’t-pay-for-six-months” entertainment system. It makes more sense to address these debts first.
  • When their mortgage came up for renewal, Fred and Ethel rolled the balance into a new Home Equity Line of Credit. However, they continue to finance their lavish life style with their credit cards. They pay off the cards each month from the HELOC on which they make the required minimum payment of accrued interest. After all, they have a huge balance still available to them. They think they are managing their debt well by paying off “bad” credit card debt and having “good” mortgage debt.
  • Jess went to her favourite home décor store to purchase some sheets. There was a store promotion that gave 20% off purchases when opening a new store credit card. Excited by the discount, Jess picked out a whole bedding set from duvet to accent cushions. The balance is too high to pay when the bill arrives so she makes minimum monthly payments while incurring interest charges of 29.9%. Meanwhile, she has enough money in her low-interest savings account to pay the entire bill, but chooses not to.
  • Leonard works on commission and his paycheque amounts vary. He makes up the difference in lean months with his overdraft protection at 24%. Until he learns how to budget for his irregular income, he should use his credit card for purchases, even if he carries a balance for a month or two.
  • Ross receives a credit card offer with a “teaser” 0% interest on balance transfers. He transfers the balance from his high interest rate card and cancels it. He uses his new card for future purchases, not realizing that the 0% only applies to the amount of the transfer. His payments go to the new purchases he made which carry a much higher rate. He would have been better off to continue using his old card for his occasional new purchases, pay the monthly balance in full, and avoid using the new card at all.
  • Barney and Betty have a systematic plan to pay off all their debt. They are using the “snowball” method popularized by author Dave Ramsey, which states that it is psychologically satisfying to first rid yourself of the smallest debts first, regardless of interest rates. The reasoning is they would be better prepared – and more enthusiastic – to stick with the strategy. But, once the small debts were done they took their foot off the gas and paid random amounts on the higher debts whenever the inclination hit them.  

Final thoughts

Instead of speculating about the direction of future interest rates, we should be examining our own habits.

Take a look at how you think about – and manage – your personal debt and see if you can minimize your borrowing costs.

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