TORONTO - Canadians who are worried about the amount of interest they pay for borrowing money could be relieved to hear the central bank decided Tuesday to keep its benchmark rate at a relatively low level of one per cent until at least the fall.
But a recent survey, which found a significant interest rate hike would pose a challenge to nearly half of those polled, highlights the need for better financial literacy.
"Canadians need to take control of their financial situations," said Nicholas Cheung of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants, which sponsored the poll.
"They need to make decisions in their own best interests, and by taking this control they will be stronger financially."
Of the 1,000 Canadians randomly sampled by Harris Decima via telephone, 48 per cent of them said a significant interest rake hike would make it difficult for them to keep up with mortgage or debt payments.
Of that group, 29 per cent said they would have difficulty making payments if rates went up by two percentage points.
An additional 29 per cent of those worried about interest rate hikes said an increase of three or four percentage points would pose a problem.
The study came out as the Bank of Canada announced Tuesday that it will keep its key interest rates low at least until the next policy meeting in September.
The central bank — an independent arm of the government — generally sets the tone for what commercial lenders charge their customers.
For example, the commercial banks' prime rate (currently 3.0 per cent) is currently two percentage points above the Bank of Canada's target overnight rate, which has been at one per cent since September 2010.
The prime rates, in turn, are used to set some mortgage rates — particularly for variable-rate mortgages and those specifically tied to the prime rate.
Other, longer-term mortgage rates are less influenced by the Bank of Canada's actions and more by how 10-year Canada bonds are trading.
To add another wrinkle to the picture, credit card interest rates charged on balances owing tend to remain much higher than mortgage rates no matter what the central bank has decided.
On the flip side, for consumers who would like to get interest payments from their investments or retirees who depend on pension benefits, the era of low interest rates has been tough.
The Bank of Canada and other central banks have kept their benchmark rates low in order to stimulate borrowing and spending during a time of economic upheaval.
The unintended consequence, however, has been for consumers to borrow heavily rather than save their money — resulting in record-high levels of household debt in Canada as well as a willingness to take on larger mortgages to buy real-estate.
Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, among others, has warned that the low interest rates can't stay forever. He has said consumers should be disciplined and avoid taking on more debt than they can afford, even if intereat rates go higher.
The survey, commissioned by the CICA, found that roughly 60 per cent of those surveyed save less than 10 per cent of their monthly income.
It also found that nearly 40 per cent of respondents believe they will still be paying down their debt after they turn 65, an age that often marks the beginning of retirement.
The poll is considered accurate to within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
"Canadians need to reduce and minimize debt, they need to save more, they certainly need to spend less and spend within their means," said Cheung.
"But there is growing evidence that people are paying closer attention to their financial matters," he added.
About 39 per cent of respondents said they have improved their financial situation over the past year, citing reduced debt, increased household earnings and better money management skills.
Cheung urged Canadians to start saving money earlier, pay down debt quickly, consolidate their debt at a lower interest rate and budget for their purchases.
"It's a bit like getting in shape," said Cheung.
"It's easy to put on weight, just like it's easy to spend more and take on more debt. But the important thing to realize is that it's never too late to get into shape, or get your finances in order. It requires discipline, hard work and tough choices."