DEBT NATION

How to keep your debt down as interest rates go up

Interest rate are on the rise at a time when Canadians have piled up near-record levels of household debt. Financial experts offer advice on how to not let your debt get you down.

It may be time to consolidate your loans or look for a second income

Worried about rising interest rates? Financial experts offer advice on how to stay on top of your debt. (This Is Me/Shutterstock )

This story is part of a series we're calling Debt Nation looking at the state of consumer debt in Canada.

As interest rates rise, so does Canadians' anxiety over their debt.

For close to a decade, homeowners have enjoyed rock-bottom interest rates. However, that's slowly changing. This week, the Bank of Canada raised its key rate by a quarter-point for the fifth time since July 2017, pushing up borrowing costs for consumers.

To put it into perspective, mortgage rate-comparison site RateHub crunched the numbers. It found that before July 2017, the lowest available variable-mortgage rate was just 1.75 per cent. After this week's increase, it jumped to 2.7 per cent. The rate change translates to $186 extra in monthly payments on a $400,000 mortgage.

It's expected rates will continue to rise next year — at a time when Canadians have piled up near-record levels of household debt.

Here, financial experts offer their advice on how to not let your debt get you down.

Consolidate

If you're facing sky-high interest rates — such as 20 per cent on your credit card debt — you may be able to lower your monthly payments by consolidating your debt into one loan at a lower rate.

Homeowners can typically secure some of the lowest rates available by borrowing against the equity in the home. Their two options are refinancing their mortgage or getting a home equity line of credit.

But these loans come with some caveats: They include legal and home appraisal fees which can add up to hundreds of dollars. There's also a penalty fee for breaking a fixed mortgage early. 

Financial adviser Allan Tran suggests that people in need of smaller, short-term loans consider an unsecured line of credit, also an option for non-homeowners. The interest rate will likely be higher, but there are typically no added fees.

"If it's short-term borrowing, so I only need $5,000 and I can pay it off because my bonus is coming up at the end of the year, an unsecured line of credit is the way to go," said Tran, an adviser with Meridian Credit Union in Hamilton.

Pay down debt

Financial planner Rona Birenbaum warns that consolidating loans only makes sense for people with a solid financial plan.

"Unless they change their spending habits, within a few years, that credit card will be run up again," says Birenbaum, with the firm Caring for Clients in Toronto.

She suggests a more effective way to wipe out debt is the "avalanche" method, where people pay down loans with the highest interest rate first.

"When they know they're paying a lot of interest, they're more determined to get it paid off."

Financial planner Rona Birenbaum warns that consolidating loans only makes sense for people with a solid financial plan. (CBC)

Tran cautions that if you're using savings to pay down debt, you should still set some aside for emergencies such as surprise home repairs.

But if you do have extra cash available, he recommends also putting some toward your mortgage, as long as you don't incur a penalty. The move could potentially save you thousands of dollars over the mortgage's full term.

Tran says the faster you make extra payments, the more money you'll save. "Interest is calculated on a daily basis. If you can afford it today, why not?"

Make more money

If you're already cash-strapped, where do you find the extra money to pare down your debt?

Birenbaum suggests making a list of your expenditures to figure out where to cut that fat.

"Identify where your money's going," she said. "When we get our clients to actually crunch the numbers, they're universally blown away by how big the number is."

If you find you can't cut much from your expenditures list, it may be time to search for another income.

Many people don't have time for a second job, but thanks to the power of the internet, there are other ways to generate extra cash, such as by selling unwanted furniture on Kijiji or even renting your car.

Sean Cooper torches his loan papers at a mortgage burning party in Toronto in 2015. (CBC)

Sean Cooper gained attention in 2015 for paying off his $255,000 mortgage in just three years. To generate extra cash, he lived in his basement and rented the rest of his Toronto home.

Cooper understands that's not practical for most people, but suggests with online services like Airbnb, homeowners can rent out rooms or their entire house for short periods, such as when they go on vacation.

"There's definitely ways you can be creative about it. You don't have to be a full-time landlord," says Cooper, author of  the financial self-help book Burn Your Mortgage.

Shop around for a mortgage

Many people haven't yet felt the full effects of recent rate hikes because they have a fixed-rate mortgage — the most popular type in Canada.

When it comes time for renewal, Cooper recommends shopping around for the best interest rate.

"It's so easy to just sign the renewal papers, but you're probably costing yourself a tonne of money."

Birenbaum suggests consulting a mortgage broker who, for no fee, will do the shopping for you to try to find the best deal.

"It's both time-saving and money-saving." 

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca