Who is in charge: you or your debts?

The bills are piling up on the counter, you have stopped opening the mail and you no longer answer the phone anymore for fear of who is calling. The mortgage and the car loan are paid up to date, but Visa, MasterCard, Sears, Zellers and student loans are all behind in payments.

If you or anyone you know has ever experienced the mind-numbing anxiety associated with not being able to pay your creditors, read on. This is for you.

Will that be cash or Chargex?

In 1968, the introduction of bank charge cards to Canada forever changed the lives of a country filled with money savers. No other financial product has altered the spending habits of Canadians more than Chargex. By putting $300 of instant credit into the hands of millions of consumers, our financial lives were altered forever. While Canadians were reluctant at first to accept this new method of payment for goods, by 1973 the Bank of Montreal introduced their Master Charge card in an effort to attract some of this promising new sales market.

The marketing departments at various banks were working overtime promoting their credit cards as status symbols. As the credit cards gained popularity, it became apparent to financial institutions they may have discovered the goose that lays the golden eggs.

It would not be until 1977, when Chargex was renamed Visa and Master Charge was changed to MasterCard that Canada's love affair with plastic would really begin.

In 1975, the national consumer debt load was $16 billion; in 1990 our debt had grown to $100 billion. Personal debt is now at its highest point in the country's history. In 2000, our debt had exploded to $186 billion, not including mortgages. In the same year, there were 40.1 million Visas and MasterCards in circulation — of that number, 18.5 million accounts, or 46%, carried a balance.

Merchants no longer ask, "Will that be cash or Chargex?" For many Canadians, using credit to extend monthly income has become a way of life. As a credit counsellor I wonder how long can this go on? Lack of money can cause extreme stress, job loss, divorce, physical and emotional problems, and even death.

Many years ago one of my colleagues was in severe financial difficulty, but he told no one. Believing there was no solution to his financial situation, he took his own life. It was then I began to comprehend how much guilt and shame people with financial difficulties can experience. It was also that same time I decided to make a difference in someone's life. I believe the way to accomplish this is to educate Canadians about matters of credit so they will understand what power they have. My hope is, through education they will come to realize; their credit rating is not a reflection of who they are; it is merely a credit industry tool. It does not tell me who you are as a person; it tells me where financially you have been, but not why.

What can you do?

So what can you do if you find you have become an overcommitted debtor? The first step is to empower yourself with knowledge about the credit industry:

  • What are your rights as a debtor?
  • What are your responsibilities?

Each week we are going to examine options in order for you to have the power to make an informed decision if you find yourself faced with debt you cannot repay.

  • Try to negotiate new repayment terms with your creditors;
  • Speak to your bank about a consolidation loan;
  • Speak to a qualified credit counsellor (how can they help);
  • File a consumer proposal;
  • Make an assignment in bankruptcy.

If you become over-indebted, empower yourself. Find out your options and do some research before things get out of hand. You may want to contact your creditors to explain to them what has happened and ask what adjustments can be made. Read tips for dealing with your creditors.

If your debts are credit cards, try getting a consolidation loan from your financial institution — the interest rates are usually lower, thus reducing monthly payments.

You may wish to speak to a credit counsellor about possible solutions to your financial situation. If so, be sure to verify the qualifications of the counselor. Not all counsellors are created equal. Check out each organization thoroughly before you deal with them. Do not be afraid to ask questions (What makes the counsellor qualified to give you financial advice? Demand to see their certificates and their licence).

You may also wish to speak to a bankruptcy trustee regarding a consumer proposal or an assignment in bankruptcy. Or you may want to speak to an insolvency lawyer.

Each week we will examine different ways of dealing with credit, your rights as a debtor and responsibilities. If you are in debt we hope to provide you with solutions in order for you to resolve your financial difficulties and move on with your life. Or perhaps, you would like to learn to how to create a budget so you have more control over your money.

There is life after debt.

Next Week: The first step to your financial health.