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  • Dawn Walton The Globe and Mail

Drowning in debt? Tips for curing the January financial blues

It’s around this time of year that the calls start rolling in – and, the deluge continues through March.

They are from consumers who have been avoiding their credit card statements or logging onto their bank accounts, as the January financial blues set in after weeks of gleeful holiday spending. The experts have a name for it - the “holiday debt hangover.”

And people such as Jeffrey Schwartz, executive director of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services Canada, Inc., are busy walking consumers through their financial statements, setting budgets and working on debt-reduction strategies.

Mr. Schwartz said the reaction to the post-holiday reality check is fairly universal: “It starts with sticker shock and quickly moves to buyer’s remorse.”

In his books, January isn’t the time for resolutions. It's the time to set SMART financial goals – ones that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely.

Some basic tips: “Don’t add any more to your debt,” Mr. Schwartz said, “Put your credit cards away. Stop using your line of credit. Live on cash or debit.”

Buying only what you can afford can be a difficult lesson. Canadian borrowing levels have hit record levels, with household debt-to-income ratio recently reaching a high of 164.6 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.

Meanwhile, the Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy Canada reported that for the first 10 months of last year, 60,833 consumers filed for bankruptcy. That is on pace to mark another drop in annual consumer bankruptcies. In 2011, 77,993 consumers filed for bankruptcy, down 16 per cent from the year before when 92,694 took the step of last resort.

The report suggests Canadians are still able to meet their debt repayment obligations. But that might not be the case for long.

Doug Jones, a senior vice-president and trustee with national accounting firm BDO Canada Ltd., said record high personal debt and warnings about interest rate hikes suggests a serious “problem on the horizon” for those pushing their financial limits.

Mr. Jones said often people are frightened or embarrassed to seek help. But consulting a trustee, which comes with no charge, doesn’t always mean filing for bankruptcy, he explained. Trustees can help set budgets, steer consumers toward consolidation loans, mortgage refinancing or consumer proposals as a way to climb out of debt, he said.

Often there’s a psychological strategy to debt-repayment.

Pay down the debt with the biggest interest rate first, or select a small debt, and pay it off.

“That gives a sense of accomplishment,” Mr. Schwartz said, “It might even change our behavior in terms of savings.”

Consumers need to take a rational account of their situation – look at penalties associated with paying down their mortgages early or debts with the highest interest rates, Mr. Jones said.

One good way to start, he added, is to step back and ask: “Where’s the best bang for your buck?”

Dawn Walton

The Globe and Mail

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