Canadians burdened with hefty debt worry about retirement

Many dream about the day they can retire and enjoy the so-called golden years, but Canadians in their late 40s and early 50s are still carrying massive debts, with little savings for their future.

Plan your financial future before it's too late, advisers say

53-year-old Catherine Burden says selling her family's house might be the only way to get out of debt. (CBC News)

Many Canadians dream about the day they can retire and enjoy the so-called golden years. But for some time now, experts have been warning that dream is just that — a dream.

Many people in their late 40s and early 50s are still carrying massive debts and have little savings for the future.

Catherine Burden says her sole financial focus is a $160,000 line of credit.

"Every paycheque is budgeted out. I have all the bills written down. What goes for what, who pays for what," says Burden, 53, who lives in Hamilton with her husband, Matt.

"Sometimes it goes into the red. Well, actually, it always goes into the red. And that's why we have a really large credit line."

The couple got the credit line years ago to renovate their home. Then, all three of their kids went to university and the bills kept piling in.

"Maybe $100 here, $100 there, but it adds up. And after awhile, it becomes unmanageable," she says. "We're near maxing ours out, which I find highly embarrassing."

Not so golden years

For seniors, the amount of debt they're carrying continues to climb. In the late 1990s, about a quarter of people over 65 had some kind of debt. According to the latest Statistics Canada report from 2012, that number is up to more than 40 per cent.

Credit Canada CEO Laurie Campbell says Canadians can be thrown off financial plans due to a sudden illness or by simply outliving their savings. (CBC)
"The highest increase in bankruptcies right now is seniors," says Laurie Campbell, chief executive officer of Credit Canada.

Sudden illnesses often ruin the best financial plans. Plus, Campbell says, Canadians just living longer, so they're outliving their savings.

If you think your home is a safe retirement plan, Campbell says you should think again.

"Your house should not be your retirement plan because most people don't want to leave their homes."

As well, many seniors don't have their mortgages fully paid off. A recent joint study by HomEquity Bank and Equifax Canada found people over 70 have, on average, a mortgage balance of $140,000.

Big debt, little savings

Catherine Burden admits she's fortunate when it comes to her mortgage. Her uncle passed away and left her enough to help pay it off. But any savings are going to that hefty line of credit.

A recent joint study by HomEquity Bank and Equifax Canada found seniors over the age of 70 have, on average, a mortgage balance of $140,000. (Associated Press)
"I don't know what the answer is really. Unless we do something drastic literally and sell our house, that would be the only way we could get out of debt," she says.

CBC News explained her situation to Toronto-based personal finance expert Bruce Sellery, who says the family should go to a mortgage broker and get a mortgage that eliminates the line of credit. 

"If it's a mortgage, it's going to take, say 10 years. But that's the plan .... pay it off for 10 years."

Children also in need

An increasing challenge for empty nesters is adult children who are struggling financially. Burden's daughter, Constance, recently moved back home after graduating from university.

Personal finance expert Bruce Sellery says people who've accumulated large credit lines should go to a mortgage broker to eliminate the debt with a plan. (CBC)
"You go into it thinking 'Oh, everyone is going into university. I'm going to get a job, I'm going to make money,'" says Constance.

"But I'm 23 and I'm $50,000 in debt. That's scary."

Parents may feel pressure to help, but experts warn they must strike a balance with their own financial needs.

Retirement check list

Toronto-based financial advisor Lee Helkie says there are a number of key considerations for older adults planning retirement and people should clarify your goals to ensure they are realistic.

Helkie offers this check list:

  • Look at your total net worth (everything you own vs. everything you owe).
  • How much are you earning today and how much are you spending?
  • What do you want to live on when you aren't working — be honest, is that doable?
  • Break it down to "pots" of money (RRSP, pension, savings, property value).

Then it's time to do the math and she says your answer should be pretty clear.

An increasing challenge for empty-nesters is having adult children who are also struggling financially because of mounting debt. (CBC)
"The challenge for people in their 50s is that they are running out of time. If they aren't on track, the amount they need to set aside is larger ... If they are on track, they may just need to tweak their spending and savings habits," says Helkie.

"It is empowering to know where you are at, while you have the ability to do something about it," Helkie adds. "Waiting much longer could mean disappointment in your ability to fulfil your goals."

About the Author

Shannon Martin

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Shannon is an award-winning reporter with CBC Toronto. She was part of the core team that launched "No Fixed Address", a hugely popular series on millenials renting and buying in Toronto. In 2016, Shannon hosted a special live broadcast on-air and on Facebook simultaneously from Toronto Pride, which won top honours in the Digital category at the RTDNA awards. Contact Shannon: or find her on Instagram at @ShannonMartinTV.

With files from Shana Cohen


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