TORONTO — As Canadian officials issue repeated warnings about the perils of overborrowing amid troubling consumer debt levels, one quarter of respondents to a new poll say they will carry their existing credit card debt for more than a year, and some don’t know if they will ever be able to pay it off.

The Harris/Decima survey released Monday by bankruptcy trustees Hoyes, Michalos & Associates found that half of Canadians with credit card balances say they often or always carry a balance.

Many Canadians may shrug at the idea of carrying a balance on their credit card, even though it means paying an interest rate that usually hovers close to 20 per cent.

But the survey conducted in December shows that one-in-20 are buried in so much credit card debt, they’re worried they will never be able to pay it off.

Doug Hoyes says his firm commissioned the survey to learn more about credit card borrowing because it’s the most common type of debt burdening those who walk into his office in Kitchener, Ont.

“If someone goes bankrupt, it’s very unusual that they don’t have credit card debt. This is the number one debt that we see when someone goes bankrupt,” he said.

“Obviously, there’s a bunch of people out there who’ve got a bunch of debt who are certainly struggling with it.”

Statistics Canada data show that household debt rose to 164.6 per cent of disposable income in 2012, meaning Canadians owe about $1.65 for every $1 they earn in income. The level is similar to that recorded in the U.S. just before the housing bust and financial collapse of 2008.

The situation is becoming so dire that Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney has said “the greatest risk to the domestic economy is household debt.”

The average Canadian's debt load grew to $26,768, up 4.6 per cent year-over year in the third quarter – the fastest pace in two years, according to TransUnion Canada’s latest credit analysis. But the report also found that Canadian average credit card debt was down one per cent year-over-year at an average of $3,573.

A report released last week by RBC Economics found that, as of November, the slowdown in credit card borrowing has been a significant contributor to a slowdown in overall non-mortgage debt growth to a yearly increase of 2.6 per cent in November from 2.8 per cent in October.

It found that Canadian credit card debt totalled $73.7 billion in November, down 4.6 per cent from the same month of 2011, a sign that the bank said indicates “that households are taking heed of the repeated warnings about the perils of overindebtedness.”

'CATASTROPHIC' CONSEQUENCES

The problem, Hoyes says, is that historically low interest rates give consumers a break on other types of borrowing, including mortgages and lines of credit, making them feel more comfortable with their overall debt loads.

While consumer insolvency rates are on the decline for now, (falling 3.7 per cent for the 12-month period ending October, 2012, compared with the same month of 2011), when the Bank of Canada inevitably raises its overnight lending rate beyond the current one per cent — which would in turn send bank lending rates higher — some borrowers could find themselves in serious trouble.

“The consequences could be catastrophic,” Hoyes said of even a small rise in interest rates.

“The reason we’re able to pay all our credit card debt is because we’ve got a low-interest mortgage. People don’t grasp the math.”

For example, if mortgage rates went up by one percentage point to four per cent from three per cent, a homeowner paying $1,000 a month in mortgage would pay another $333, raising their monthly mortgage burden by a third.

“Even just a little, tiny increase in interest rates on a big debt like a mortgage or a line of credit could really put people into the soup,” Hoyes said.

A 2011 study conducted by his firm found that the average bankrupt Canadian owes about $24,400 and owed money on four or more credit cards. Hoyes believes that figure probably has increased since then, because Canadians have lived even longer in this post-recession low interest rate environment.

In the most recent survey, conducted over the phone between Dec. 6 and 10 , as many as 10 per cent of respondents said they have considered talking to a credit counselor for advice, with four per cent considering a debt settlement.

Patricia White, executive director at Credit Counselling Canada said she is not surprised that so many Canadians do not believe in their ability to pay off their credit card balances within a year, both because interest rates are so low and because debt loads are so high, hampering cash flow and Canadians’ ability to make payments.

Still, White believes it is a positive sign that the growth in credit card debt is slowing. She thinks that Canadians are heeding repeated warnings by Carney and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty that the level of borrowing is unsustainable.

“We’ve had lots of warnings by Minister Flaherty and Mr. Carney and others and lots of media coverage around all of that, about people needing to pay down that debt, and that, to me, is saying the message is getting out there.”

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  • Canadian Household Debt By Region

  • 6. Atlantic Canada: $69,300

    Number represents the average among those households that carry debt. Source: <a href="http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-001-x/2012002/article/11636-eng.pdf" target="_hplink">Statistics Canada</a>

  • 5. Quebec: $78,900

    Number represents the average among those households that carry debt. Source: <a href="http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-001-x/2012002/article/11636-eng.pdf" target="_hplink">Statistics Canada</a>

  • 4. Manitoba & Saskatchewan: $84,900

    Number represents the average among those households that carry debt. Source: <a href="http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-001-x/2012002/article/11636-eng.pdf" target="_hplink">Statistics Canada</a>

  • 3. Ontario: $124,700

    Number represents the average among those households that carry debt. Source: <a href="http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-001-x/2012002/article/11636-eng.pdf" target="_hplink">Statistics Canada</a>

  • 2. British Columbia: $155,500

    Number represents the average among those households that carry debt. Source: <a href="http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-001-x/2012002/article/11636-eng.pdf" target="_hplink">Statistics Canada</a>

  • 1. Alberta: $157,700

    Number represents the average among those households that carry debt. Source: <a href="http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-001-x/2012002/article/11636-eng.pdf" target="_hplink">Statistics Canada</a>

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    THE 10 COUNTRIES DEEPEST IN DEBT

  • 10. United Kingdom

    <strong>Debt as a percentage of GDP:</strong> 80.9 percent <strong>General government debt:</strong> $1.99 trillion <strong>GDP per capita (PPP):</strong> $35,860 <strong>Nominal GDP:</strong> $2.46 trillion <strong>Unemployment rate:</strong> 8.4 percent <strong>Credit rating:</strong> Aaa Although the UK has one of the largest debt-to-GDP ratios among developed nations, it has managed to keep its economy relatively stable. The UK is not part of the eurozone and has its own independent central bank. The UK's independence has helped protect it from being engulfed in the European debt crisis. Government bond yields have remained low. The country also has retained its Aaa credit rating, reflecting its secure financial standing. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/02/14/the-tencountries-deepest-in-debt/#ixzz1mSdyJAeo" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>

  • 9. Germany

    <strong>Debt as a percentage of GDP:</strong> 81.8 percent <strong>General government debt:</strong> $2.79 trillion <strong>GDP per capita (PPP):</strong> $37,591 <strong>Nominal GDP:</strong> $3.56 trillion <strong>Unemployment rate:</strong> 5.5 percent <strong>Credit rating:</strong> Aaa As the largest economy and financial stronghold of the EU, Germany has the most interest in maintaining debt stability for itself and the entire eurozone. In 2010, when Greece was on the verge of defaulting on its debt, the IMF and EU were forced to implement a 45 billion euro bailout package. A good portion of the bill was footed by Germany. The country has a perfect credit rating and an unemployment rate of just 5.5 percent, one of the lowest in Europe. Despite its relatively strong economy, Germany will have one of the largest debt-to-GDP ratios among developed nations of 81.8 percent, according to Moody's projections. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/02/14/the-tencountries-deepest-in-debt/#ixzz1mSdyJAeo" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>

  • 8. France

    <strong>Debt as a percentage of GDP:</strong> 85.4 percent <strong>General government debt:</strong> $2.26 trillion <strong>GDP per capita (PPP):</strong> $33,820 <strong>Nominal GDP:</strong> $2.76 trillion <strong>Unemployment rate:</strong> 9.9 percent <strong>Credit rating:</strong> Aaa France is the third-biggest economy in the EU, with a GDP of $2.76 trillion, just shy of the UK's $2.46 trillion. In January, after being long-considered one of the more economically stable countries, Standard & Poor's downgraded French sovereign debt from a perfect AAA to AA+. This came at the same time eight other euro nations, including Spain, Portugal and Italy, were also downgraded. S&P's action represented a serious blow to the government, which had been claiming its economy as stable as the UK's. Moody's still rates the country at Aaa, the highest rating, but changed the country's outlook to negative on Monday. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/02/14/the-tencountries-deepest-in-debt/#ixzz1mSdyJAeo" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>

  • 7. United States

    <strong>Debt as a percentage of GDP:</strong> 85.5 percent <strong>General government debt:</strong> $12.8 trillion <strong>GDP per capita (PPP):</strong> $47,184 <strong>Nominal GDP:</strong> $15.13 trillion <strong>Unemployment rate:</strong> 8.3 percent <strong>Credit rating:</strong> Aaa U.S. government debt in 2001 was estimated at 45.6 percent of total GDP. By 2011, after a decade of increased government spending, U.S. debt was 85.5 percent of GDP. In 2001, U.S. government expenditure as a percent of GDP was 33.1 percent. By 2010, is was 39.1 percent. In 2005, U.S. debt was $6.4 trillion. By 2011, U.S. debt has doubled to $12.8 trillion, according to Moody's estimates. While Moody's still rates the U.S. at a perfect Aaa, last August Standard & Poor's downgraded the country from AAA to AA+. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/02/14/the-tencountries-deepest-in-debt/#ixzz1mSdyJAeo" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>

  • 6. Belgium

    <strong>Debt as a percentage of GDP:</strong> 97.2 percent <strong>General government debt:</strong> $479 billion <strong>GDP per capita (PPP):</strong> $37,448 <strong>Nominal GDP:</strong> $514 billion <strong>Unemployment rate:</strong> 7.2 percent <strong>Credit rating:</strong> Aa1 Belgium's public debt-to-GDP ratio peaked in 1993 at about 135 percent, but was subsequently reduced to about 84 percent by 2007. In just four years, the ratio has risen to nearly 95 percent. In December 2011, Moody's downgraded Belgium's local and foreign currency government bonds from Aa1 to Aa3. In its explanation of the downgrade, the rating agency cited "the growing risk to economic growth created by the need for tax hikes or spending cuts." In January of this year, the country was forced to make about $1.3 billion in spending cuts, according to The Financial Times, to avoid failing "to meet new European Union fiscal rules designed to prevent a repeat of the eurozone debt crisis." <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/02/14/the-tencountries-deepest-in-debt/#ixzz1mSdyJAeo" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>

  • 5. Portugal

    <strong>Debt as a percentage of GDP:</strong> 101.6 percent <strong>General government debt:</strong> $257 billion <strong>GDP per capita (PPP):</strong> $25,575 <strong>Nominal GDP:</strong> $239 billion <strong>Unemployment rate:</strong> 13.6 percent <strong>Credit rating:</strong> Ba3 Portugal suffered greatly from the global recession -- more than many other countries -- partly because of its low GDP per capita. In 2011, the country received a $104 billion bailout from the EU and the IMF due to its large budget deficit and growing public debt. The Portuguese government now "plans to trim the budget deficit from 9.8 percent of gross domestic product in 2010 to 4.5 percent in 2012 and to the EU ceiling of 3 percent in 2013," according Business Week. The country's debt was downgraded to junk status by Moody's in July 2011 and downgraded again to Ba3 on Monday. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/02/14/the-tencountries-deepest-in-debt/#ixzz1mSdyJAeo" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>

  • 4. Ireland

    <strong>Debt as a percentage of GDP:</strong> 108.1 percent <strong>General government debt:</strong> $225 billion <strong>GDP per capita (PPP):</strong> $39,727 <strong>Nominal GDP:</strong> $217 billion <strong>Unemployment rate:</strong> 14.5 percent <strong>Credit rating:</strong> Ba1 Ireland was once the healthiest economy in the EU. In the early 2000s, it had the lowest unemployment rate of any developed industrial country. During that time, nominal GDP was growing at an average rate of roughly 10 percent each year. However, when the global economic recession hit, Ireland's economy began contracting rapidly. In 2006, the Irish government had a budget surplus of 2.9 percent of GDP. In 2010, it accrued a staggering deficit of 32.4 percent of GDP. Since 2001, Ireland's debt has increased more than 500 percent. Moody's estimates that the country's general government debt was $224 billion, well more than its GDP of $216 billion. Moody's rates Ireland's sovereign debt at Ba1, or junk status. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/02/14/the-tencountries-deepest-in-debt/#ixzz1mSdyJAeo" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>

  • 3. Italy

    <strong>Debt as a percentage of GDP:</strong> 120.5 percent <strong>General government debt:</strong> $2.54 trillion <strong>GDP per capita (PPP):</strong> $31,555 <strong>Nominal GDP:</strong> $2.2 trillion <strong>Unemployment rate:</strong> 8.9 percent <strong>Credit rating:</strong> A3 Italy's large public debt is made worse by the country's poor economic growth. In 2010, GDP grew at a sluggish 1.3 percent. This was preceded by two years of falling GDP. In December 2011, the Italian government passed an austerity package in order to lower borrowing costs. The Financial Times reports that according to consumer association Federconsumatori, the government's nearly $40 billion package of tax increases and spending cuts will cost the average household about $1,500 each year for the next three years. On Monday, Moody's downgraded Italy's credit rating to A3, from A2. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/02/14/the-tencountries-deepest-in-debt/#ixzz1mSdyJAeo" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>

  • 2. Greece

    <strong>Debt as a percentage of GDP:</strong> 168.2 percent <strong>General government debt:</strong> $489 billion <strong>GDP per capita (PPP):</strong> $28,154 <strong>Nominal GDP:</strong> $303 billion <strong>Unemployment rate:</strong> 19.2 percent <strong>Credit rating:</strong> Ca Greece became the poster child of the European financial crisis in 2009 and 2010. After it was bailed out by the rest of the EU and the IMF, it appeared that matters could not get any worse. Instead, Greece's economy has continued to unravel, prompting new austerity measures and talks of an even more serious default crisis. In 2010, Greece's debt as a percent of GDP was 143 percent. Last year, Moody's estimates Greece's debt increased to 163 percent of GDP. Greece would need a second bailout worth 130 billion euro -- the equivalent of roughly $172 billion -- in order to prevent the country from defaulting on its debt in March. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/02/14/the-tencountries-deepest-in-debt/#ixzz1mSdyJAeo" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>

  • 1. Japan

    <strong>Debt as a percentage of GDP:</strong> 233.1 percent <strong>General government debt:</strong> $13.7 trillion <strong>GDP per capita (PPP):</strong> $33,994 <strong>Nominal GDP:</strong> $5.88 trillion <strong>Unemployment rate:</strong> 4.6 percent <strong>Credit rating:</strong> Aa3 Japan's debt-to-GDP ratio of 233.1 percent is the highest among the world's developed nations by a large margin. Despite the country's massive debt, it has managed to avoid the type of economic distress affecting nations such as Greece and Portugal. This is largely due to Japan's healthy unemployment rate and population of domestic bondholders, who consistently fund Japanese government borrowing. Japanese vice minister Fumihiko Igarashi said in a speech in November 2011 that "95 percent of Japanese government bonds have been financed domestically so far, with only 5 percent held by foreigners." Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has proposed the doubling of Japan's 5 percent national sales tax by 2015 to help bring down the nation's debt. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/02/14/the-tencountries-deepest-in-debt/#ixzz1mSdyJAeo" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>