Opinion: Breaking Alberta’s awkward silence around money and debt

Opinion: Breaking Alberta’s awkward silence around money and debt

Debt is not a dirty word, says counsellor.


Summer brings with it the notion of carefree days. Four fortnights of fun are on the horizon. But standing in the way of two months of relaxed bliss is a huge elephant in the room. Consumer debt is at its highest-level ever, potentially sidetracking people’s plans for the coming months. As we plunge into July, and with the year already half over, this is an apt time to check where Albertans are on pocketbook issues, especially debt — and provide a reset and a weight off the shoulder.

Let’s recap the latest news headlines: statistics from the Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy indicate the total number of insolvencies in Canada increased in May by five per cent from April; Canadians have never spent so much paying off debt according to StatsCan and finally, a recent Equifax report showed that the average debt per Canadian consumer, including mortgages, totalled $71,300 in the first quarter.

They say a problem shared is a problem halved. But despite all the news about consumer debt and insolvencies, some Canadians still avoid talking about money. A recent Angus Reid poll commissioned by the non-profit Credit Canada, found that Albertans (24 per cent) chose sex as their least favourite topic, followed by embarrassing health issues (23 per cent), small talk (20 per cent), finances and money (16 per cent), religion or politics (11 per cent) and family/relationship issues (six per cent).

However, when asked which money topic people least like talking about, personal debt and bankruptcy led by a huge margin with one in three Albertans declaring it taboo (33 per cent). This number is highest in Quebec (42 per cent) and lowest in Ontario (28 per cent). Although the average Canadian has over $22,000 in non-mortgage debt, no one seems to be talking about it. The truth is it can seem overwhelming, and as a result, people often suffer in silence feeling like they have nowhere to turn.

Seeing money as a taboo topic is nothing new. Credit Canada has heard from thousands of people from all walks of life, backgrounds, ages and situations and has seen firsthand the courage it requires to take the first step and resist feeling exposed and vulnerable.

Credit counsellors are often asked the same question: Am I the worst case you’ve ever seen? People so rarely discuss money issues with one another that they often feel like they are the only person in the world going through their situation and that they’re spiralling out of control. But they only feel this way because they don’t talk to anybody about their financial problems.

Nevertheless, Canadians are becoming increasingly open about some really difficult and often taboo subjects. The topic of debt needs to go through an emancipation movement, much like mental-health issues, addiction and PTSD. There needs to be a destigmatizing rally cry around debt.

In fact, there is a strong correlation between financial problems and issues such as debt and mental health. When people feel burdened by their financial situation, instead of opening up and getting help, they often shut themselves off and bury their head in the sand, making the situation much worse.

Unfortunately, our consumer culture, intertwined with the pressures of social media, encourages Canadians to spend more than they can actually afford. Rising affluence and rising debt have become almost indistinguishable, as year-over-year consumers embrace higher levels of debt and lower levels of savings.

In the face of this change, it is equally important that society finds and pursues every means to educate and inform people about the fundamentals of personal finances and debt management. Suffering in silence doesn’t get people anywhere. The more people open up about their problems and get frank about money, the weaker the stigma becomes.

We need to change our money mindsets and start addressing the problem because it impacts more of us than we think.

Laurie Campbell is the CEO of Credit Canada Debt Solutions, a non-profit credit counselling agency that provides free credit counselling and debt consolidation services.

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