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One of the country’s best communicators on personal finance is tackling one of the country’s toughest personal finance challenges. Meet Bruce Sellery, the new CEO of Credit Canada, a non-profit credit counselling agency. Mr. Sellery is a money columnist for CBC Radio, author of the book Moolala: Why smart people do dumb things with money (and what you can do about it) and a former anchor for BNN Bloomberg. I invited him to do a guest Q&A for this newsletter to find out what he has planned to help people fighting to get out of debt.

Q: Bruce, you’ve had years of experience talking to people about financial literacy. What are the key messages you want to get across in your new job?

A: When you’re suffocating under a mountain of debt, it can feel like escape is impossible. So, first and foremost, I want people to know that it is possible to get a better handle on their money. There are many resources out there that can help, including non-profit credit counselling. It isn’t easy to get back on track, but it is possible.

Q: I’m going to put it out there that non-profit credit counselling is a way under-utilized resource. What are your plans to make people more aware of the services you provide?

A: I am passionate. I am committed. And I am loud. Sometimes my intensity is a little much – ask my family – but I think it’s important that we shout from the rooftops about how non-profit credit counselling can help people. That message needs to be heard by Canadians with debt, and by the stakeholders who benefit from people using credit responsibly – banks, credit unions, social service agencies, politicians and bureaucrats. I have many of these relationships already, given my background, and I will be picking up the phone. Also, we need to raise our game on the marketing front. I started my career at Procter & Gamble, marketing Pampers, and that experience will be helpful. We have compassionate, experienced credit counsellors ready to help, but we need to sell our service better.

Q: Can you give us a quick summary of the services your agency provides and the costs.

A: All of our counselling services are free of charge and totally confidential. Our certified Credit Counsellors start with a free debt assessment to understand what the person is struggling with. We guide them through how our different solutions can help, and make a referral if they need other options. You can consider Credit Canada the “first call.”

Q: The pandemic has made a lot of people richer than ever before through rising house and stock prices – how do you keep a conversation going on the plight of people who lost jobs or income and are struggling to pay debts?

A: This is the “Tale of Two Pandemics.” The people with a cash surplus have a hard time understanding that there are millions of people in this country facing massive debts. Through no fault of their own, they had to rely on government income support, and to take payment deferrals, which pushed debt higher as interest accrued. In some cases, this pushed them past their credit limits, causing higher interest rate charges. Many still don’t have jobs, and won’t be returning to work any time soon. As these supports wind down, these people could face devastating financial consequences. We can’t let Canadians fall through the cracks, especially when there’s help available.

Q: What’s the view at Credit Canada on how busy you’ll be in 2021 helping people manage their debt problems?

A: We are going to be very, very busy this year. Income supports will eventually end, but employment isn’t picking up as quickly as it needs to. Debt payments and other financial obligations will have to resume at some point too, and record low interest rates will rise. When they do, people will need our services more than ever.

Q: What are your thoughts on whether people will go back to their free-spending ways after the pandemic, or adopt a new frugality along the lines of the post-Depression generation?

A: I think it will be a mixture of both. Those who were lucky enough to keep their jobs and save money throughout the pandemic will spend like drunken sailors as soon as lockdowns lift. This pent-up demand will be critical for the businesses who have suffered the most, like local retailers and restaurants. However, those who lost their jobs will continue to struggle, especially once creditors start knocking at their door. It will be interesting to see how the lessons we learned in the last year around having a Plan B fund will stick. People are antsy, and I get it. But we can’t let what we learned go to waste.

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