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Acceptable debt versus bad debt

Not all consumer debt is bad but it’s wise to be cautious: expert

Increasing the amount of consumer debt isn’t necessarily bad as long as it’s affordable, according to Matt Fabian, director, research and industry analysis, at credit research company TransUnion.

TransUnion studies Canadian debt and produces a report every quarter. Their latest report is for the second quarter, ending June 30. In an interview, Fabian said the study is providing an overview of debt in relation to how fast income rates are rising and household net worth is increasing.

“Our study this quarter suggests that Canadians are still increasing their debt, up 3.9 per cent in the second quarter, compared to the same quarter a year ago,” he said.

“A couple of things that we note are, although debt continued to go up, the rate with which it increased has started to slow for the past couple of quarters, when you compare it annually,” said Fabian.

“It might be too early to say we’re at … an inflection  point but the combination of interest rates increasing and some economic uncertainty in different regions of Canada are giving people pause and maybe they may not be accumulating as much debt as they were, at the rate they were,” he said.

There is some good news coming from the Atlantic region, Fabian said of the quarterly study. 

Although the economy can be volatile in the Atlantic region, he said, TransUnion sees provinces like Nova Scotia performing much better than the national average.

The average non-mortgage consumer debt in Nova Scotia is about $28,400 and only went up about 1.24 per cent on a year-over-year basis, said Fabian. New Brunswick is similar, even slightly less, at $27,300 and it went up about 2.37 per cent. Prince Edward Island had average non-mortgage consumer debt of $28,426, which is up 2.16 per cent in the second quarter, compared to the same quarter in 2017. 

Newfoundland and Labrador came in under the national average in the second quarter as well, he said, with average non-mortgage consumer debt landing at $30,169, up 2.16 per cent when compared to the second quarter of 2017. 

Generally, the Atlantic provinces are well below the national average non-mortgage debt, which increased by 3.87 per cent in the second quarter, said Fabian.  From a delinquency perspective, however, the region scored “a little bit higher” than the second quarter national average of 5.33 per cent.

New Brunswick’s consumer delinquency rates on non-mortgage debt in the second quarter – 90 days past due – was 8.37 per cent, the highest in the region.

According to TransUnion, Newfoundland and Labrador’s consumer delinquency rate was 6.88 per cent, Nova Scotia’s delinquencies were 6.87 per cent and P.E.I. had a consumer delinquency rate in the second quarter of 5.74 per cent. 

“Newfoundland (delinquency rate) trended up .32 per cent while Nova Scotia went down about 0.7 per cent,” Fabian said. “Halifax among the major cities has amongst the lowest consumer debt, about $26,000, and it was the only major city in Canada that had negative consumer debt growth (in the second quarter).”

When one takes into context growing household net worth consumer debt is not necessarily a bad thing, Fabian said. “I think the fact that delinquency rates are a little bit higher might be a little bit concerning from a risk perspective but they’re not way out of whack and delinquency rates tend to have a long tail. So, some of the Atlantic provinces for sure are coming out of a little bit of a slump economically and it takes, sometimes, 12 to 24 months to manifest itself in delinquency rates.”

Fabian said as the economy bounces back it leads to jobs and increased salaries, so it seems reasonable to be optimistic about the debt situation.

“We tell people, generally, there’s two things to keep in mind. Understand how much you can afford. So, from a delinquency perspective there’s the notion of stress testing and you should kind of stress test yourself. 

“When you’re looking to take out debt or increasing your credit card payments, by putting something on your credit card or taking out a line of credit for a renovation, or whatever it might be, don’t just consider the position you’re in right now and say, ‘Yeah, I can afford that $300 monthly payment.’ But kind of consider your cash flow and maybe, take into account your circumstance to say: ‘Could I cover that payment in the event that I lose my job.’ Or, ‘Can I cover that payment for three months while I’m looking for another job.’ This is what we call … stress testing yourself to see if you can absorb that shock should there be some unforeseen event.”

By taking a realistic view of debt and one’s ability to manage it, Fabian says it will provide a little bit of comfort for an individual to realize they really are comfortable taking on some additional debt, he said.

“From a balance perspective, as long as you feel like you can take that on, I don’t know if taking on credit debt is necessarily a bad thing, it depends on what you’re doing it for. If it’s a mortgage or a line of credit to renovate your home or something like to improve the value of an asset or property for investing then that might be a good use of your debt. If it’s to buy new shoes or go on a vacation because you just want to, might not be the best use of your debt,” Fabian concluded.

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