If experience is any indication, many Canadians could find themselves in debt years longer than they originally expected, according to a new poll.

The poll, conducted for CIBC by Harris-Decima, reveals that, on average, Canadians holding some form of debt today feel they will be debt-free by age 55.

But the poll also found that only about 35 per cent of Canadians currently in the 55- to 64-age group — or just over a third — are actually debt-free.

The findings appeared to hold true for all age groups polled.

For example, Canadians 25 to 34 on average told the pollsters they expected to be debt-free by age 44. However, the poll found that only 18 per cent of those now in the 45-to-54 age group were, in fact, debt-free.

'The passage of time alone is not enough to achieve the goal of paying down your debt'—CIBC VP Christina Kramer

"Being debt-free is a long-term financial goal for many Canadians, and this poll suggests Canadians are actively looking ahead to the stage of life they will be in when they successfully pay off all of their debt," said Christina Kramer, executive vice-president, Retail Distribution and Channel Strategy, CIBC.

She notes, however, that this disparity between expectations and results suggests that Canadians need to remain focused on a debt repayment strategy.

"A key finding in this poll is that the passage of time alone is not enough to achieve the goal of paying down your debt," Kramer said. "Canadians with a goal of being debt-free would benefit from having a realistic plan in place that includes extra payments towards their debt and a strategy to minimize their interest costs."

"Paying down your debt is no different from having a plan to put money away for retirement," she added. "You need a goal and a plan to get you there, and a conversation with an adviser can help you build a strategy and start making progress towards being debt-free."

Long-term debt

Meanwhile, the poll also disclosed that many Canadians see themselves as having debt for the long term, with eight per cent of poll respondents believing they will be into their 70s before their debts are paid off and 10 per cent of respondents saying they will never be debt-free.

Albertans saw themselves as being debt-free at age 52 on average, the youngest age in the poll. Atlantic Canadians and residents of British Columbia were less optimistic, targeting age 58 to be debt-free, on average.

"It can be tempting to believe that 10 years from now you will be better off financially and will have paid down your debt considerably, but the reality is that it takes a slow and steady approach to both debt management and savings to make progress towards your financial goals," Kramer said.

The telephone survey of 2,008 Canadians between June 30 and July 10 is considered to have a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points 19 times out of 20.