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Kicking Debt Down The Road

Canadians started piling on the debt after the financial crisis in 2008. Back then our household debt-to-income ratio was sitting around 150 percent ($1.50 owed for every dollar of disposable income). Today that number hovers around 177 percent. We are kicking debt down the road, instead of kicking it to the curb.

It can be reasonable to take on debt for big ticket items such as a mortgage, vehicle, education, or for an investment. We often do so because it’s easier to pay off a loan over time than it is to save enough to pay the full cost upfront. That’s life.

But the pain of debt can be masked by the cheap cost of borrowing. Low monthly payments, interest-only payments, and long amortization periods give the illusion that our debts are manageable. We think a long overdue raise, promotion, tax refund, or some other windfall will solve our money problems, but until then the debts keep piling up.

We get trapped in an unending cycle of minimum monthly payments and creditors are happy to oblige if it means getting you into a bigger house with a new SUV and an annual trip to the Dominican.

Here are four ways we keep kicking debt down the road:

1.) Minimum payments on your credit card

A cardinal sin of personal finance. We’ve all seen the disclaimers on our credit card statements that say if we only make the minimum payment each month it’ll take a lifetime to pay off your balance in full.

My latest American Express statement had an outstanding balance of $1,086 and the minimum monthly payment was only $10. At that rate it would take 9 years and 1 month to erase the $1,086 debt, and I would have paid another $1,000 in interest charges along the way.

Yet many people do this every single month. It’s easy to see why when you’re living paycheque-to-paycheque and there’s no wiggle room in your budget. A $10 payment gets the credit card company off your back and gives you some breathing room today. Unfortunately it’s your future self who’s forced to pay the bill.

The average credit card debt is hovering around $4,200, according to TransUnion. Most credit cards charge 19.99 percent interest or higher, making this one of the most expensive forms of debt to carry over from month to month.

That’s why I recommend treating credit card debt like a four alarm fire emergency. Slash your spending, pause any savings plans, and divert any extra cash you can towards your credit card balance until it’s gone for good. This is one debt you cannot afford to kick down the road.

Related: Debt avalanche vs. Debt snowball

2.) Interest-only payments on your line of credit

The run-up in housing prices over the last decade has fueled a borrowing frenzy with Canadians tapping into their home equity at a record pace. Canadian home equity line of credit balances reached $230 billion earlier this year. That’s more than 3 million HELOC accounts open at an average outstanding balance of about $65,000.

One insidious feature of a HELOC is that it only requires a monthly interest payment. In fact, about 40 percent of HELOC borrowers don’t regularly pay down the principal.

Let’s say you have a $70,000 balance and the interest rate on your HELOC is 4 percent. Your monthly interest payment would be about $233 and each month that amount would be taken from your chequing account and applied to the HELOC balance.

But unlike other loan repayments there is nothing stopping a borrower from transferring that $233 right back to his or her chequing account – a move called “capitalizing the interest.” Also known as kicking debt down the road forever.

A big line of credit balance tends to linger until the mortgage comes up for renewal, in which case the borrower tries to roll the HELOC balance back into the mortgage, or until the homeowner sells the home and the balance is paid off from the sale proceeds.

A HELOC is not an ATM. It can be useful for a specific purpose, such as a home renovation or to buy a car. Using it to supplement your income, though, is a bad idea that will catch up with you eventually.

If you find yourself with a lingering line of credit balance make a plan to pay it off over a reasonable amount of time. Set up automatic transfers from your chequing account each month to match your target pay off date and start whittling down that balance today.

3.) Extending your amortization

You bought a house and took out a mortgage amortized over 25 years. When it comes time to renew in five years, instead of sticking with your amortization schedule at 20 years, your mortgage broker talks you into extending the amortization back to 25 years to keep your payments low.

While it might sound good in theory to give yourself the flexibility of a low payment in case of emergency, it’s too tempting to use that option to free up extra cash flow for lifestyle inflation and spending.

Extending your amortization means never getting any closer to paying off your mortgage. It prioritizes today’s cash flow over tomorrow’s freedom – not something your future self will appreciate when you have to delay retirement until that damn mortgage is paid off.

The smart move is to not only stick to the original amortization schedule on your mortgage but also to reduce it further by changing your payments to bi-weekly instead of monthly, increasing your payment by $50 or $100 when your budget allows it, and taking advantage of your pre-payment privileges when possible.

Making mortgage payments is automation at its finest – forced savings that you won’t miss once it has left your account.

4.) Long-term car loans

Canadian auto debt continues to grow as the average consumer’s auto-loan balance climbed to $20,160 last year. I’m on record saying that Canadians’ obsession with having two brand-new trucks or SUVs in the driveway is killing our finances.

Blame the fact that six and seven year car loans are now the norm.

The trend towards longer term car loans is problematic for two reasons. One, people are getting talked into buying more expensive cars at the dealership. That’s because the focus is about the monthly payment rather than the total cost of financing the vehicle. Longer term loans keep monthly payments affordable and increase the chances of selling an expensive vehicle.

Two, consumers get trapped in a negative equity cycle when they want to trade-in their vehicle before it’s paid off. The existing loan balance gets rolled into the new car loan, and the now more expensive car loan cycle begins.

Related: Why does my car dealer want to buy back my car?

Breaking the cycle takes sacrifice. Drive your cars longer (10 years+), buy used, only buy as much car as you need, reduce your household vehicles from two to one, and save up and pay cash for your next one.

Final thoughts

Successful money management starts with being smart about debt. Kicking it down the road only prolongs the inevitable.

Tackle your credit card balance first, and be relentless. You’ll never get a better guaranteed return than paying down debt at 20 percent interest. Stop treating your home equity like an ATM and start paying down the principal. Don’t wait until you sell your home.

Stick to your amortization schedule and try to pay off your mortgage in 15-25 years. Extending your amortization or taking payment vacations is not a path to prosperity.

Finally, break that auto-loan cycle. Long term financing might make your monthly payments more affordable today, but it’s awfully expensive in the end, especially if you keep trading in your car every 3-5 years.

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7 Comments

  1. Lotar Maurer on December 4, 2019 at 8:08 am

    Where are Canadians learning this behaviour? From their governments — for decades, Canada’s senior governments have been going into ever-increasing debt by spending money they don’t have and increasingly have less expectation of ever getting.
    Why are people and governments doing this? Admittedly with some exceptions, it’s because they have forgotten, or never learned, the difference between needs and wants.

    • Beth on December 7, 2019 at 10:50 am

      I don’t think we can completely blame governments on this one. It’s more likely a lack of personal finance education than people deciding to follow the example of their governments.

      I’ve lived under the same governments, but I was fortunate to grow up in a finance-savvy household.

  2. Cheryl on December 4, 2019 at 9:44 am

    I find it hard to believe that the average credit card debt is $4200. I’d figure it’d be more than $10,000 for many people, probably on more than one card. Unless when they say “average” they’re taking in account all the credit cards issued in Canada, including 0 balances along with higher balances owing, adding all the balances and taking the average. For example I have 4 credit cards all currently at 0. We take someone else who has 4 credit cards with balances around $10,000 each. We take someone else who has 2 credit cards with about about $1,000 each owing. Those 10 cards total $42,000 so the average balance is $4,200. Though not all three people in the above scenario have to pay that amount to their credit card companies.

    • Beth on December 7, 2019 at 10:46 am

      I was wondering that myself! You’d think a zero balance wouldn’t be figured into the equation because there is no debt.

      Unless they’re counting unpaid bills. If you think about it, we’ve all got credit card debt until our bills are paid each month. (Unless you go in and pay the money back right after you charge it.)

  3. Curt on December 4, 2019 at 9:49 am

    Great article. Now how do we, you and the majority of your readers, move your message to and influence the many that would benefit the most?

  4. CanadianDaniel on December 5, 2019 at 6:52 am

    Fabulous article, Robb. If I might add, I had a significant credit card debt problem about 10 years ago masked by my super-regular payments of interest only. Here’s another smoke-and-mirror fact: my credit score remained fine mostly, I believe, because the accounts were processed as not being in arrears. Eventually things caught up (as they always do) and I had to negotiate debt repayment with the banks. After learning a very painful lesson, these days I’m very close to being completely debt free.

  5. Paul E on December 5, 2019 at 9:43 am

    I just wanted to add an easy strategy, when using a credit card. I did this when younger and saved a lot of interest, Set up a PLC, and pay the balance on your CC every month. Important of course to pay down the PLC asap, but better to have a loan at 4-10 than 19-28 percent, helps a lot in reducing debt quicker.

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