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household finances

A woman reads receipts and holds a credit card.George Doyle

Almost a quarter of Canadians have shed their personal debt, while others owe more than last year, says a poll released Tuesday.

Twenty-four per cent of Canadians say they eliminated their non-mortgage debt in 2013, compared with 26 per cent in 2012 and 22 per cent in 2011, according a Royal Bank of Canada poll on debt.

Among Canadians who still have personal debt, the average load has jumped to $15,920, a $2,779 increase from a year ago. From 2011 to 2012, the average overall debt edged just $83 higher.

Jeffrey Schwartz, executive director of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services of Canada, believes some people are getting the message and hustling to repay their debt before interest rates rise.

Canadians have also become increasingly aware of the benefits of moving their debt from credit cards toward things like a home equity line of credit, which often has a much lower interest rate, he explained in an interview. "They are shifting their unsecured debt to secured debt. So from one perspective they are doing some positive money management, by paying lower rates on their debt."

"But the big key here is to alter their spending habits," Mr. Schwartz says.

Many people who come to them for help have seen their consumer debt build up slowly. "Over time, people get into bad habits, like buying a car or too much house. All of a sudden their employment situation changes and their income drops or they are not working as many hours," he says.

"The debt that they have built up while they were not working, or while they were in a higher income bracket, that has not changed. So now they have to figure out what they need to do."

The most recent figures released by Statistics Canada in September showed that a key measure of consumer debt, the debt-to-income ratio of Canadian households, hit a new new high of 163.4 in the second quarter of this year. That's up from 162.1 per cent in the first quarter and a reversal from two quarters of edging lower.

TD economist Diana Petramala says the long-term trend is that Canadian household debt is still growing but at a slower pace. At over 163, the Canadian debt-to-income ratio "does look a little excessive" and she would like to see it drop down to between 152 and 153.

Looking ahead, Ms. Petramala expects Canadians will continue to curb their consumer borrowing. "Households have hit their debt wall. I don't think debt levels are excessive and unmanageable, because debt is still so affordable, but the overall appetite for debt has slowed."

And although credit card debt is falling, she noted that borrowing for cars is still strong.

Debt certainly seems to be keeping at least some Canadians up at night. The RBC poll found that 38 per cent of those polled are "very anxious" about their debt levels, up from 34 per cent in 2012. However, an equal number of people – 38 per cent – said they are comfortable with the amount they owe.

The RBC news release also noted that in an effort to reduce their personal debt, Canadians are putting off spending on big-ticket items such as vacations and vehicles. It did not provide any details on how many people were doing so and what other measures they are taking to curb their borrowing.

Regionally, the poll revealed a large divide between Eastern and Western Canada. Debt levels shot up 35 per cent in the West, compared with a 20-per-cent increase in the East. "Alberta, faced with regional floods earlier this year, showed a significant increase in debt load, rising 63 per cent from 2012," RBC said in the release.

The RBC poll was conducted by Ipsos Reid from Aug. 22 to 27, 2013. The online survey is based on a randomly selected sample of 2,108 adult Canadians.

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