Statistics from credit monitoring firm Equifax Canada show that consumer debt, excluding mortgages, rose 3.7 per cent in the third quarter to $507.1 billion from $489 billion a year earlier.
Despite the increase in debt load, however, the overall delinquency rate — bills more than 90 days past due — dropped to a record low of 1.13 per cent in the three months ended Sept. 20. That was down from 1.22 per cent in the same period last year.
"People are gaining confidence and they see they can maintain more or less their lifestyle yet are more aware of the financial choices they're making," said Regina Malina, director of modelling and analytics at Equifax.
Meanwhile, overall consumer debt, including mortgages, continues to grow. In the third quarter, Canadians owed $1.36 trillion, up from $1.3 trillion a year earlier.
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"It's not like we can relax and not pay attention to the pattern because delinquency is low, but the conclusion is that consumers have learned to behave more responsibly," she said.
"At one point, the debt can get to the point where the delinquency rate can reverse course."
Previous Equifax studies have shown that consumers tend to take out more loans, and do not pay them back as quickly, during a volatile economy or periods of high unemployment.
Regionally, those from Quebec had the lowest delinquency rates, while those in the eastern provinces had the highest.
The study also noted that like the previous quarter, seniors continued to accumulate debt at the highest rate, yet still carried the least amount of debt of any age group. It said debt levels for those aged 65 years and older were 6.4 per cent higher than in the same period a year ago.
The Bank of Canada has repeatedly warned that as interest rates rise, Canadians may become vulnerable to an economic shock if they are carrying too much debt.
Equifax uses data from 24 million files on consumer credit history, including national credit cards, loans and mortgages in compiling the report each quarter.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version erroneously referenced third-quarter consumer debt in Canada. The correct number should be $1.36 trillion.