Christmas debt hangover cure starts with retracing holiday transactions

CALGARY — Like the morning after too many eggnogs the night before, many Canadian families are waking up this week to the pounding headache of a Christmas debt hangover.

But credit counsellors say there’s a cure for those who have the courage to face their painful situation.

Mike, a 38-year-old from Vancouver, remembers his desperation when he finally realized he needed help about five years ago.

“I had no other choice. I had like $1 left on my credit card,” he said.

“I had the ability to make money but no matter how much I made, I was paying it out in debt payments every month. Something had to change.”

Mike, who asked his last name be withheld, owned a failing metal fabrication business in Vancouver.

The trouble was he didn’t realize how badly it was failing — there wasn’t enough money coming in to cover the payments on his $20,000 business loan, resulting in him running up about $15,000 in debt on his credit cards.

He described his financial plan at the time as “delusional.”

For instance, although he knew he had to pay taxes, he didn’t because he couldn’t afford it. Similarly, when he calculated his income, he would look only at the revenue side and not at his crippling expenses.

Today, he credits two forces for helping him get out of the quagmire — his now-wife, who let him move in with her to control living costs, and the Credit Counselling Society, which helped him consolidate his debt and pay it down with affordable $400 monthly payments.

Scott Hannah, founder and president of the society, says most of its clients just need a little advice, but the society will also negotiate with creditors and collect payments on their behalf from the client in about one in five cases.

“Christmas itself is a very stressful time,” he said. “When you add on financial difficulties, it just magnifies the amount of stress.”

The society is one of several not-for-profit members of Credit Counselling Canada, organizations financed mainly by lending institutions that offer free debt-counselling services. It has offices in the western provinces, the North and in Ontario.

Another is Money Mentors, which has offices throughout Alberta.

“All too often, we see people who come in here and they’re still paying off their Christmas debt from last year,” said Money Mentors counsellor Brian Betz.

“It goes on the credit card, they’re making minimum payments. They’re still paying it off and they don’t realize that.”

The two agreed that the first step to getting out of debt is to get an accurate picture of where the money is going. Online bank and credit card statements can help clients identify non-essential expenses that can be reduced.

Hannah said it’s important that credit cards are put on ice — “You can’t get out of debt if you keep using debt.”

Setting a realistic budget is the next step. Many make the mistake of trying to pay down the debt so quickly there’s no money for essentials and the plan fails.

A good budget should include a savings plan, so that unexpected expenses are easier to deal with. Families should also budget a strictly limited amount of “fun money,” Hannah said.

Betz said figuring out how much Christmas cost this year will make next year’s holiday more enjoyable.

“If I’m going to spend $1,200 on Christmas, that’s $100 a month I have to put aside,” he said.

Dealing with the debt could involve getting a low interest consolidation loan from a bank. Or you could accelerate payments on high interest rate debt such as credit cards and pay the minimum on less expensive debt.

The counsellors said too many Canadians wait too long to get help with their credit problems.

The Bank of Canada calculates consumers owe about $1.71 for every dollar of household disposable income.

Hannah said he thinks consumer debt will continue to grow in 2018, especially in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where the oil price slump of the past three years continues to put pressure on consumers with too much debt.

Debt-free and with a full-time government job, Mike still dreams of being his own boss but is framing those dreams in much more realistic terms these days.

“Definitely, now I can afford to buy more Christmas presents for the nieces and nephews,” he said. “I was never the uncle who brings presents before.”

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