July 11: Interview with Janet Gray

July 11, 2024

Are we becoming too comfortable with debt? A Money Coach weighs in!

When the Bank of Canada recently ratcheted down its decades-high prime rate, we wondered if millions of debt-holding Canadians would start to breathe easier.

Or, are they comfortable with having a lot of debt and not following the ups and downs of interest rates?

We reached out to Janet Gray, CFP, advice-only planner with Money Coaches Canada to find out more on the topic of debt, and its distant cousins budgeting and saving.

“Everyone’s perception of debt is different,” says Gray. We all have a “different threshold of comfort/discomfort” with the idea of being in debt. That level of comfort – unheard of in our parents’ and grandparents’ day – can impact whether or not we can step up and manage our debt, says Gray.

While some folks may still live off their credit cards, it’s harder to do in an era where credit cards carry interest rates of 21 to 30 per cent.

That sort of high interest debt should be targeted first if you ever set out on a plan to reduce or eliminate indebtedness, she adds.

It’s more common these days for people to leverage the equity in their homes for extra cash. “We are living in our largest savings account,” she explains, mentioning the easy access we have to home equity lines of credit or reverse mortgages. Even today’s higher interest rates on lines of credit – in the 7.25 per cent range – are small compared to the rates charged by credit cards.

“In an emergency, many people have to access their lines of credit if they don’t have enough savings,” she explains.

Gray agrees that the recent period of ultra-low interest rates has “normalized” debt. She says it was not that long ago that we saw 1.99 per cent mortgages and zero per cent car loans. “It has been so easy to get credit – everything has been so easy – but management of credit is not so intuitive,” she explains.

Debt is like “a machine that feeds itself,” she explains, with such drivers as the feeling of denial when you can’t afford something, the lack of tools to cope with debt, and the fact that “people don’t comprehend where credit use is taking them – the stress, wear and tear, the impact on relationships.”

So how do we turn things around, and manage debt while building savings?

Part of the solution is acceptance – recognizing that there’s a problem – and then having the perseverance “to get there” and solve it, she says.

Know your numbers, and quantify the true cost of credit – what you are paying in interest, and how that impacts the real cost of credit card purchases. “Make that your mission – don’t spend unless you have a plan to pay (debt) back,” she explains.

Budgeting – every dollar has a job

Gray explains that we need to realize that every dollar we have needs to have a job. It needs a specific goal, a plan for that dollar. Some can go to debt, but others can be put away for long-term savings, or to help pay for a vacation trip.

Problems can happen with your money if “you don’t have the jobs well identified,” she explains. “You need to know what you need your money to do. You have to define jobs for every dollar, and then (after you pay for your required expenses) align your investment and savings with those goals.”

If you are thinking about short-term money goals, your money should be in something that is less risky and more oriented towards short-term savings – perhaps via a Tax Free Savings Account invested in fixed-income investments which is usually safe, secure and readily accessible.

Your longer-term money, for such things as retirement, should be focused on growth investments, like equity, and can live in a registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) or, increasingly these days, a TFSA so there is no tax when you withdraw the money in retirement, she says.

“Find the job, then find the vehicle,” she explains.

Looking ahead

While we are seeing more consumer proposals and bankruptcies caused by improper use of credit, there are some good signs out there.

Gray says she was pleased to learn that Grade 10 students in Ontario will soon be getting financial literacy training, beginning at age 15. “That’s the perfect age for it, since they are still in school until age 16 but some are working part time and earning money. They are still (maybe) moldable at 15.

The hope, she adds, is that younger people will begin to learn that you need to align the money you make with your needs, to “have the dollars working for you, and not you working for the dollars.”

We thank Janet Gray for taking the time to chat with us again!

Thinking about saving for retirement? But don’t know how to get started? The Saskatchewan Pension Plan may be just the program for you. It’s open to any Canadian with RRSP room, and you can start small and ratchet things up as you progress through your working career. SPP will professionally invest and grow your savings via a low-cost, pooled investment fund. At retirement, you can choose from several options – money for life via an SPP annuity, or the flexibility of the Variable Benefit. Check out SPP today.

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Written by Martin Biefer

Martin Biefer is Senior Pension Writer at Avery & Kerr Communications in Nepean, Ontario. A veteran reporter, editor and pension communicator, he’s now a freelancer. Interests include golf, line dancing and classic rock, and playing guitar. Got a story idea? Let Martin know via LinkedIn.


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