Canada | Personal Finance

Debt impacts peoples’ physical and mental health, says expert

Stacy Yanchuk Oleksy, speaker at the 2019 Mastering Money conference, offers debtors advice on how to recognize they’re in trouble and what to do to get their finances back on track

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young woman on a cell phone in her home office, while looking at a important documentBecause many people are so afraid to ask for help until they’re drowning in debt, they may respond to ads for companies claiming to assist, but that actually are unqualified as financial advisers or are receiving kickbacks (Getty Images/10’000 Hours)

Canada, it seems, is a country of debtors. Canadians’ level of personal debt increased to 174.05 per cent of gross income in the second quarter of 2019, an all-time high, according to data compiled by Trading Economics. And Environics Analytics puts the debt service ratio at 8.4 per cent, nationally, with the most stressed areas spending a heart-stopping average of 22 percent of after-tax income on interest. A lot of people, then, are at the end of their proverbial ropes.

At the upcoming CPA Canada 2019 Mastering Money Conference Stacy Yanchuk Oleksy, director of education and community awareness at the Credit Counselling Society—a non-profit charity that helps Canadians through free credit counselling, low-cost debt solutions and financial education—will discuss what these beleaguered folks can do to mitigate their situation. 

SPOTTING THE WARNING SIGNS

How can people tell they’re in over their heads? Oleksy says that financial stress can affect peoples’ sleep as they feel overwhelmed. They may pull money from one credit card to pay another, or bounce cheques, or carry overdrafts all the time, max out their credit or have non-sufficient funds charges on accounts.

“Fighting with your partner or your spouse about money is a warning sign,” she adds.

The stress from debt, she says, impacts peoples’ physical and mental health as well. “[Debt] has some pretty significant impacts on people,” she notes. “Unfortunately, what happens is that because in Canada, as I’ve said for years, we don’t talk about money very much, it’s essentially the last taboo and we’re more willing to talk about a lot of things other than money, that people often feel like they’re the only person in the room who just doesn’t know what’s going on.”

PINPOINTING THE CAUSE

“What happened is that people turn 18, they get their first credit product or credit card, and we assume that they know how to deal with it,” says Oleksy. “Like some magical fairy dust flies up in their face, and they’re good.”

But that is not the case. Many live beyond their means, and we’ve become a society of minimum payments. The 2018 CPA Canada Canadian Finance Study revealed that 23 per cent of participants planned to carry over credit card debt to the following month, and 39 per cent admitted that a significant rise in interest rates would challenge their ability to keep up their mortgage and other debt payments. Yet people often don’t ask for help when debt becomes a problem.

“Because we don’t talk about money, consumers feel embarrassed, and oftentimes feel worse, they feel ashamed, because of their money problems,” Oleksy says. “When we don’t know what we’re doing, but we expect we should know what we’re doing. And so that shame can lead to keeping your hand down and not asking for help.”

She cites three ways people can get into trouble financially: 

  1. Not knowing where the money is going. A lot of little expenditures like that daily $5 coffee add up quickly. 
  2. Not having savings. Without savings, an unexpected expense can be a big problem, while with savings, it could be downgraded to an annoyance. She suggests several categories of savings, including a rainy-day fund for emergencies or irregular expenses (Christmas, back to school, etc.), and a fund for goals (perhaps a vacation or a new car).
  3. Not living within our means, and understanding the difference between needs and wants—do you really need that new phone, or do you want it to impress your friends? 

“And,” says Oleksy, “If I could add a fourth, it would be not getting help.”

WHERE TO SEEK HELP

Because many people are so afraid to ask for help until they’re drowning in debt, they may respond to ads for companies claiming to assist, but that actually are unqualified as financial advisers or are receiving kickbacks for referrals to alternative financing agencies. Legitimate credit counsellors are required to be certified and operate within specific parameters.

“Because it is your money, regardless of your debt levels and shame level, you have the right to ask questions,” she says. “Who are they? How are they paid? Are they accredited? How are their people trained? What are they trained in? Is someone getting a kickback or a payoff for referral? Those are important questions.”

That’s why Oleksy is trying to spread the message to accountants that local non-profit credit counselling agencies can help their clients by offering education, advice on ways to handle money problems, or, when appropriate, referrals to other agencies.

“We’re not therapists, we’re solution focused credit counselors, and educators,” she says. “And so, what we want to do is get in, help the clients resolve their problems, and then step out of their life so they can move on.”

GET INVOLVED

CPA Canada’s annual Mastering Money Conference will be held on November 7 and 8 in Ottawa. The conference theme is Building resilience in volatile economies.