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rob carrick

The good news on household debt: We know there's a problem and we're starting to take action.

The bad news: Still too much complacency and overconfidence.

That's the conclusion to be drawn from polling that some of the big banks have done recently on debt, the topic that just won't go away. We've reached record levels of consumer indebtedness as a country and now there are growing signs of an economic slowdown both here and globally. High debts and declining job security would be a bad combination.

You can see the gap between talk and action on debt in the results of a survey of commissioned by Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. Three-quarters of the 890 baby boomers in the survey (aged 45 to 64) were in debt, including 46 per cent who had a mortgage.

Forty-two per cent of baby boomers who owed money recognized that their debts were an obstacle to achieving their financial goals, and almost two-thirds saw themselves as making good progress paying off their debts. So far, so good.

Where we run into problems is in the finding that only 44 per cent of the baby boomers surveyed saw themselves as making sacrifices to manage their debts. That's less than the 46 per cent of all the survey participants who said they were cutting back. Also, just 47 per cent of baby boomers reported making at least one lump-sum payment against their debts this year, versus 46 per cent in the broader survey.

Debt's a big issue for baby boomers because they will retire soon, and they seem to recognize this. Still, some are clearly dithering about paying down what they owe.

A variation on this debt disconnect can be found in results from surveys sponsored by a couple of other banks. In a recent Toronto-Dominion Bank survey of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24, 58 per cent said they were anxious or stressed about how they would pay their way through college or university. A total of 64 per cent said they expected to graduate with debt and 25 per cent said they expected to wind up owing more than $25,000.

That's realistic, although possibly a shade optimistic in terms of both how many will graduate with debts and the total amount of debt that will be owed. But never mind – at least students seem to understand what they're up against.

Or do they? It's not easy to square TD's financially stressed students with another recent survey of students on credit cards. Bank of Montreal sponsored a survey of students in which 83 per cent of participants said they are confident they know how to use a credit card effectively, and 73 per cent said they pay off their balance in full each month. BMO said the results are supported by its own experience with student credit card holders.

"I know if someone were to ask me how I am managing my finances as a student I would probably respond with, 'I am doing fine,'" Zach Dayler, national director of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, said in an e-mail reply to a question about how students are managing credit card debts.

He also wondered whether the students in BMO's survey were getting help from their parents with their credit cards. It doesn't really matter, though. What's relevant is that we have students who are both stressed about money and confident about credit cards. They're not unlike the baby boomers who know debts are a problem as they approach retirement, but lack a sense of urgency about paying them off.

The positive spin on all of this is that people are recognizing they have debt issues and are taking at least some steps to deal with them. This is what's happening right now at the non-profit Consolidated Credit Counseling Services of Canada, where the crisis cases of the recession have given way to people proactively seeking help with serious debt loads.

"It's an excellent sign and it falls in line with some of the stats that came out earlier this year showing that debt is increasing, but at a slower rate," said Jeff Schwartz, the service's executive director.

But Mr. Schwartz isn't satisfied. He sees low interest rates and comparative strength in the Canadian economy and wonders if they'll distract heavily indebted people from taking steps to curb spending.

"We've got to pare back what we're doing," he said. "We have to take more of an attitude that we really need to deal with our debt and get ourselves into a position so that when we retire, or when and if the economy changes and the environment isn't as positive as it is now, we can weather the storm."


One way for students to limit their debt is to reduce their spending. That's easy to say, but there are concrete ways to spend less. Here are some suggestions from Consolidated Credit Counseling Services of Canada:

-Shop garage sales to find furniture and kitchen supplies for your home away from home

-Inquire about student plans with your cellphone provider; it can be beneficial to have a local area code to avoid costly long distance charges and Skype are alternatives to the cost of a land line

-Buy used text books

-Check for campus discounts on cable, Internet and utilities

-Kijiji and Craigslist are valuable sources for good stuff cheap

-Travel Zoo lists air, bus and train seat sales – sign up for their newsletter to stay in the loop

-Subscribe to Simply Frugal and Smart Canucks for the most up-to-date coupons, deals and discounts available at restaurants, retailers and grocery stores across the country.

-Track your spending

-The financial planning firm Caring For Clients offers an online worksheet to track student spending


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