Canadians' personal debt rises

Canadians rang up five per cent more in personal debt in the first three months of 2011 compared with 2010, according to a report released Wednesday.

Canadians rang up five per cent more in personal debt in the first three months of 2011 compared with 2010, according to a report released Wednesday.

TransUnion, a Chicago-based credit specialist, said the average Canadian had almost $26,000 on his or her credit card, bank lines of credit and other borrowing vehicles —  excluding mortgages — during the January-to-March period. That amount represented a jump of more than $1,200 compared to the same three months one year earlier.

Lines of credit, which usually attract a lower interest rate than credit cards, were the weapon of choice for consumers in the first quarter, accounting for 40 cents out of every dollar borrowed in the period, Transunion said.

No panic

Even at these higher levels, however, the company said Canadians were not getting overloaded with too much debt.

"Our first quarter data shows a continued increase in the total debt per consumer, although the trend still remains modest compared to the double digit, pre-recession levels," said Thomas Higgins, TransUnion's vice-president of analytics and decisioning.

Still, Canadians have hiked their borrowing in each quarter since the last three months of 2009. At that time, the average Canadian owed $24,346.

TransUnion, which has operations in a number of Canadian cities, has surveyed the country's quarterly debt for a number of years.

Canadians generally have taken advantage of the country's historically low interest rates to borrow cash at advantageous terms.

Borrowing too much

But, experts have begun ringing the alarm bell regarding higher debt levels for individuals.

For example, Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney warned in a recent speech that Canadians had debt — including mortgages — valued at 150 per cent of disposable income.

"(If) there were a sudden weakening in the Canadian housing sector, it could have sizable spillover effects on other areas of the economy, such as consumption, given the high debt loads of some Canadian households," he said speaking to the Canadian Club of Kingston, Ontario in January.

According to TransUnion, credit card debt for individual Canadians actually fell in the first quarter, albeit marginally, reaching $3,539 in the January-to-March period of 2011 compared with $3,564 for the same period one year earlier.