It can happen to you

It’s probable that someone you know is deep in debt. If you are observant, you might see one of these seven signs.

People think it will never happen to them. But excessive debt problems are becoming more common among Canadians. It’s probable that someone you know is deep in debt and, if you are observant, you might see the signs.

So what are the main causes of debt problems? Seeking answers, I went to an expert in the field. Laurie Campbell is the CEO of Credit Canada Debt Solutions, a nonprofit credit counselling organization created in 1966. Campbell is an acclaimed consumer advocate known for her expertise in financial literacy, debt management and the consumer marketplace. I have served with her on the board of directors of Credit Canada for six years. In 2006 Campbell was instrumental in the creation of Credit Education Week Canada, an event held every November, which is Financial Literacy Month. This year it is being held Nov. 7 to 11. (Disclosure: I am one of the speakers.)

Campbell has seen hundreds of people mired in debt over the 25 years that she has been in the industry. Here is the countdown of the top seven reasons they come for help.

# 7. Friendly fraud

This is when a trusted friend or relative rips you off. You think that people close to you are trustworthy because you know them, right? Well in some cases you don’t know them well enough. Be careful.

# 6. Scams

I’ve written about Ponzi schemes, including Bernie Madoff’s, and I believe they are more common than people think. That’s because of ample supply (there are many fraudsters who are good at what they do) and much demand (people looking for easy riches). Many believe they’ll make the guaranteed great rate of return promised them. And most people learn there’s no such thing the hard way — by losing their nest egg, or worse, getting into debt to finance the bogus venture.

# 5. Addictions

One of the biggest problems is related to gambling, and it’s growing. It’s not like the old days when your only option was the casino. Now, in addition to numerous casinos, there are a myriad of lotteries and online gaming sites that make it easy to get addicted to throwing more and more money away, hoping for the “big win” that will solve all problems.

# 4. Health issues

According to Campbell, this is the elephant in the room. Most people are optimists when it comes to their health. They don’t foresee an accident or disease stopping them from working and many don’t feel the need to cover the risk by purchasing income protection insurance or saving money to pay the bills as they recover.

# 3. Marital breakdown

According to Statistics Canada’s 2011 Marital Status Overview, 37.6% of marriages entered into in 2008 are expected to end in divorce before the 25th year of marriage. The 50-year total divorce rate rises to 43.1%. So about four in 10 marriages end in divorce. And, as anyone who has been through it knows, it is usually a very expensive procedure. Then there’s the problem that living on your own is a lot more expensive than living with someone else. Money problems begin almost immediately and often last forever.

# 2. Job loss

When you are gainfully employed and paycheques come in regularly, it’s simple to pay your bills as they come due. You don’t need to save any money and therefore many people don’t. The problems start if that regular source of income stops — then those without savings can’t pay what they owe.

# 1. Money mismanagement

Interestingly enough, Campbell says this is the No. 1 reason for debt problems. People don’t have a handle on their expenses and as a result spend more than they make. This is why many wealthy people end up seeking help to deal with their debt issues. Surprised? I was, but it reinforces what I’ve been telling people for more than a decade — track your expenses to find out whether you are spending more than you are earning and to see where your family’s money is going so you can target areas to cut.

So how can you spot people with debt problems? Campbell says that lack of financial health often leads to physical ailments. The stress inhibits the ability to sleep. Addictions to alcohol or drugs become coping mechanisms. All the wear and tear also puts pressure on relationships. Marriages come unglued. In short, improving one’s financial situation can also lead to better physical and mental health.