10 Debt Danger Signals
After the expense of the holidays, many of us wonder how much debt is too much. Yes, Canadians are used to carrying record debt loads, but there comes a point where the burden may become too heavy.
Here are 10 danger signs that could reveal your spending is out of control:
1. You are making only minimal payments on your credit card balances as you head towards maxing them out.
2. Even so, you continue to use them for everyday purchases, such as groceries or gas.
3. You are using one credit card to pay off another. The fact that you have more than one or two credit cards is in itself a danger signal.
4. You borrow money to make it from one payday to the next.
5. You miss payments and due dates for bills and loans.
6. Creditors are after you for payment, threaten to sue or repossess your car, furniture or television, or hire a collection agency to recover the money for them.
7. You argue a lot with family about money, or hide your spending habits from them.
8. The size of your debt grows month after month. Or it has grown so large that you are afraid to look at the real total.
9. Extra money earned through overtime, tips or bonuses is relied on as part of your regular monthly income.
10. Thoughts about money and debt crowd out all others and put your life under a cloud.
Although your situation may be dire, it is never hopeless.
If you feel your debt load is becoming too much, come into Richard Killen & Associates for a free assessment. As a federally licensed bankruptcy trustee in Toronto, we can take you through all the possible financial coping strategies – whether it is debt consolidation, negotiating with creditors, a consumer proposal or even a personal bankruptcy – and find out what works best for your particular situation. And you make all the decisions.
After all, we’re talking about your peace of mind, right?
Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees
For more than 20 years, Bill had run a successful Toronto tree care business, doing tree removals, pruning, planting and much more. His finances fell into the rhythm of the growing season. In the spring, the work would flood in and then taper off into the summer and fall.
In the winter, during his downtime, Bill would use credit cards to finance advertising, equipment purchases, insurance payments and personal expenses. He would depend on the work coming in the following spring to pay things off and get him ahead in the game.
The system worked until a few years ago, when a perfect storm of bad luck gave his credit heart rot. First the nature of the business had changed, with the Internet killing off traditional advertising channels and flooding the market with cut-rate competition, often under-insured and without much real experience, but still appealing to the price-conscious consumer.
Then there was the economy that had taken a plunge, limiting people’s budgets for yard care. “If they only have $3,000 and have a choice between getting tree work done or going on a vacation, what do you think they are going to choose?” says Bill.
But the leaf that broke the branch was the four trips on credit that he took to Costa Rica, arranging to bring his new wife back to Canada. “I thought that I’d make up the money with the spring boom,” he says, “except that that year it didn’t come.”
Bill found himself with a maxed out line of credit and three credit cards owing about $12,000 apiece. He was finally unable to make payments that were high as $5,000 a month. “I felt real shame,” he recalls. “Once I had walked around with a thousand bucks in my pocket and now I didn’t have enough money to buy food for my wife and baby. That’s really scary.”
A friend suggested he go to Richard Killen & Associates, to get a free consultation so he could understand his options to deal with the crisis. “When I went in to see Richard [Killen], I felt horrible,” he says. “But by the time, I left I felt excellent. It was the best day I had in a long time.”
A large part of the Licensed Insolvency Trustee’s job was to give Bill a reality check. Still deep “in denial,” he hoped that he could find someone to give him a loan to buy his way out of the crisis. Killen pointed out that throwing more money into the pit would not solve his financial problem and would in fact make his position worse.
When people see a trustee they learn that they have options other than to simply go bankrupt. One of the most important things the trustee should do is carefully explain the consequences of the various options available. In Bill’s case;, after fully digesting what Killen explained to him, he determined that the best course of action was bankruptcy.
Bill’s main concern was that he needed to keep his business going, because like everyone else he still had to earn a living for himself and his family. As Richard explained, a bankruptcy would not deprive Bill of that right. Even in complying with the legal requirements of the bankruptcy, Bill was able to keep all his equipment, including his tree truck, and chipper – the mainstays of his business.
It came as a big surprise to Bill to find out that a bankruptcy generally allows a self employed person to retain his ability to make a living. Most people believe or have heard that if they go bankrupt they lose everything. That’s just not the case.
Today discharged from his bankruptcy, Bill is more careful about how he uses credit for his business. He tries to pay as he goes with a debit card. He and his wife have a secured credit card with a $2,000 limit, ensuring any credit used is covered by what they have in the bank. “I pay off my balance right way,” he says.
As far as his seasonal business, last winter’s ice storm has proven to be a real boon, providing all the tree debris removal business he can handle in the spring. Still, Bill is acutely aware of how quickly his fortunes can change in this line of work, like a healthy maple suddenly brought down by blight.
Asked about what he could do to protect himself from such vagaries, he smiles and says, “We could always move back to Costa Rica. Money goes a lot further there.”
Consumer Proposal or Bankruptcy?
If you are coping with severe debt problems, you have five choices to deal with the crisis: Get a consolidation loan, try to negotiate with your creditors, run away, do a consumer proposal, or go bankrupt.
The first three options you can handle yourself (we don’t recommend trying to run from your problems; they have a nasty habit of catching up). Personal bankruptcies and consumer proposals are solutions governed by the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act, and they can only be handled by Licensed Insolvency Trustees.
So why would you choose one of the legal solutions over the other? Well, every person’s case is different, so you need to come into a trustee to get advice tailored to your particular situation. But painting with broad brushstrokes, a bankruptcy is a faster and less expensive process, whereas a proposal may protect more of your assets and save your name from being associated with bankruptcy.
With a personal bankruptcy, you are released from your debts after you comply with certain duties. It’s a process that can be over in as little as nine months. Some of your assets would be exempt from this legal process – such as furniture and personal effects – and others would be handed over to the trustee and be used to repay creditors.
This latter category could include houses, high-worth cars, jewelry and certain RRSPs. Also, if you have an income over a certain set amount, you would have to pay 50% of this surplus to creditors, probably lengthening the time you were discharged from the bankruptcy.
A consumer proposal essentially reorganizes your debts. If the proposal is accepted by your creditors, you only have to make one manageable payment a month to the trustee. The length of term for a consumer proposal is five years or less, depending on fast you want to and are able to address your obligations. But generally speaking, it’s a longer more expensive process that a bankruptcy.
With the proposal you avoid the ‘stigma’ of bankruptcy and get to keep all your assets, providing you make your monthly payments and don’t slide into bankruptcy anyway. You may also want to consider a proposal if bankruptcy would also force your spouse to follow the same route, or if you are expecting to receive a large sum of money down the road.
Also, with a bankruptcy, you must complete a monthly budget for all income and expenses, as well as supply copies of your pay stubs to the trustee. If your income goes up during the period of your bankruptcy, then your surplus payments would also increase. With a consumer proposal, there are no monthly reporting requirements.