'People are still having a very hard time': Survey shows Albertans deepest in debt, despite highest incomes

This latest poll paints further detail into the grim picture of the financial situation facing many households in this province.

Latest poll paints more detail into grim picture facing many households

Credit card debt remains the most common form of borrowing for Albertans, according an Ipsos poll commissioned by BDO Canada. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Albertans make more money than Canadians in any other province and yet, according to a new survey, nearly three out of 10 of us find it financially challenging to put food on our tables.

The problem, for many, isn't a lack of income.

It's overwhelming debt.

"Even high-income earners and people that are right in the middle, they're still having problems," says Craig Fryzuk, a licensed insolvency trustee with BDO Canada, which commissioned the survey.

This probably doesn't come as a surprise, if you've been following the news. There have been numerous reports recently about how Albertans carry the most consumer debt, how insolvency rates are up, and how we have the highest debt-to-asset ratio.

But consider the findings from this latest poll, which sheds new light on just how heavy debt loads weigh on so many of us.

The results suggest just 22 per cent of Albertans are debt-free (compared with 26 per cent of Canadians, as a whole).

For the other 78 per cent of us, credit-card debt is the most common kind of borrowing.

And, when you add up all the non-mortgage debt —​ including car loans, lines of credit and student loans —​ Albertans owe the most: about $24,700, on average. (Compared with about $20,000, nationwide.)

"What I'm seeing is that people are still having a very hard time," says Fryzuk.

Craig Fryzuk​, a licensed insolvency trustee with BDO Canada, speaks with CBC Calgary about Albertans' personal debt situations. (CBC)

Part of the issue, he says, is that people have tended to live beyond their means — borrowing to buy things they want but don't really need.

"We saw a lot of that in Alberta over the last two or three years," Fryzuk says.

"Especially in the last year, with the interest rates creeping up, it makes paying off those debts a little bit tougher."

Couple that with a job loss or a reduction in income, and suddenly a household can find itself in a lot of trouble.

"Here's a key indicator that came out of this poll that really struck me," says Fryzuk. "Thirty-seven per cent of Albertans have more debt than they had last year."

And that's one area where he says Albertans' trademark sense of optimism can actually be a hindrance.

Waiting for things to get better

Fryzuk believes people are "more likely to go into debt" when they're optimistic about their future prospects for getting a raise, finding a better job or seeing their investments increase in value.

"Albertans are optimistic, which is great," he says.

"We've had it good. We've had it really good, for so long. And we've seen the ups and downs, if you've been around this province for a while. And there's just that thought — that belief — that things are going to come around."

As a result, there tends to be a sense of "we're going to do just fine and we're going to pay off all this debt."

"But, in the meantime, we're not advancing," he says. "We're not putting away to retirement savings. We're not building an emergency fund, in case something comes up."

According to the survey, 69 per cent of Albertans said they either have "too little in the way of retirement savings" or "no retirement savings at all." That was higher than any other region in the country, other than Atlantic Canada.

Of course, saving for the future is especially tough if you're struggling with day-to-day expenses.

And it's not at all uncommon for people in this province to find themselves in that boat.

Struggles to pay for food, shelter

Forty-seven per cent of Albertans surveyed said they find it "somewhat challenging" or "very challenging" to pay for their monthly housing costs.

And 28 per cent said the same about their food costs.

This, despite a median income that's 33-per-cent higher than the national average. A typical Albertan household brings in about $23,500 more, per year, compared with the typical Canadian household.

In his work as an insolvency trustee, Fryzuk says it often comes down to a question of spending priorities.

"Our wants and our needs are often muddled. We've got a lot of wants that seem to creep in there. And I think that's why we see that [struggle] in the higher income levels, as well," he says.

"It's that lifestyle creep where, as soon as we start making more, we're not putting that away, we're not paying off debt as effectively as we could be. We're just spending more money."


The survey was conducted by Ipsos on behalf of BDO Canada via on online panel of 2,000 Canadian adults. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of the same size would yield a margin of error of plus or minus 2.1 percentage points, 19 times out 20. Alberta sub-samples would carry a larger margin of error, of roughly seven percentage points. The survey was conducted from July 3 to July 6.


Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at: calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca


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With files from Russell Bowers