Today we hear much talk about the USA’s economy approaching the so-called “fiscal cliff.” What about your personal financial affairs? Are you at the fiscal cliff as we inch toward 2013? Canadians are swamped in debt. Monthly, we read about the rising debt-to-disposable income ratio that stands now at around the precarious 164% level.
Although the world and many at home commend our government for its brilliant fiscal management, few warn about the unsustainable personal debt levels. Indeed, our central bank chief, Mark Carney, accepted an appointment to a similar role at the prestigious Bank of England. Will his legacy here be that of hero or villain? Will history show that he held interest rates low for too long, encouraging many folks to take on debt they cannot afford?
To his credit, he, our finance minister, and prime minister have been warning Canadians about these dangerously high personal debt levels. However, Carney could curtail the rise by raising interest rates. Sure, higher rates will dampen current slow economic growth. Even so, I think short-term pain is better than the likely personal finances’ crash that might happen if debt remains at present levels, or grows.
What can Canadians do to avoid their fiscal cliff? Let us examine three vital steps.
Accept you are dangerously leveraged.
Set a mechanism in place to live with declining debt
Develop a new vocabulary to guide your behavior
Accept You Are Dangerously Leveraged
You can’t solve a problem unless you recognize it. Do you think you are carrying too much debt? Your banker might tell you no; however, you alone can answer this. Take a helicopter view. What are you and your family’s emotional responses to your debt? Are you worried? Can’t sleep? If yes, you have too much debt. Certainly, look at ratios, but this is the key barometer.
The emotional cost of debt is the first and the most significant cost. If debt is 10% of income, and is causing problems for you or at least one in your family, it is too much. Still, you must accept reality and decide to live with it, take on no more, and start a debt free lifestyle.
If you are a Christian, give this emotional stress to Jesus (Matthew 11:28).
Set A Mechanism In Place To Live With Declining Debt
People are impatient. We live in a now society. Sadly, probably you got into debt over a long period, and it is likely you will get out over an extended time. Accept this fact and learn to live with it.
Develop a strategy to live in your debt. Look at how you got there; draft principles to prevent a recurrence; and then write a financial plan – alone or with help. The plan should show concisely how, by following your principles, you might be debt free in a specific time.
If you got into debt by impulsive spending, you might develop a principle never to buy without a list and a budget. As well, when you feel you need to spend, you might want to wait 24-48 hours during which time you would talk with your spouse or accountability partner.
You will have to find what might work for you, decide if you need help, and try to get it.
Prepare a debt-meter and place on your fridge. Monthly, as you repay debt, adjust the debt-meter.
Develop a new vocabulary to guide your behavior
This sounds easy, is simple, and when you get it, will be your most effective debt control “tool.” What you believe will decide how you behave. If you believe emergencies happen and cause you to spend erratically, you won’t change your behavior. However, if you believe that apart from the timing, most “budget emergencies” can be planned and should be planned by setting aside funds regularly to meet them, you will plan accordingly.
Your car will need repairs. It will need new tires. Your furnace will go, and so on. The issue here is timing. You don’t know when these potential budget busters will happen. Even so, you know they will occur, so create a capital fund, a rainy-day fund, emergency fund, or some other means to save for these predictable events. If you accept this fact about emergencies, and understand that to get there you must sacrifice today’s consumption, this is the start of your major victory over debt.
Another key vocabulary change is to accept that you can’t mange money, you can manage only your behavior – change from money management to lifestyle management.
As we enter 2013, look at your finances. You will know if you are at the fiscal cliff. Rest assured, you do not need more money to get you through, first, you need to accept where you are. Next, set a mechanism to live where you are as you work off your debt. Then examine your vocabulary, your beliefs, and adjust them to reality.
I pray you will turn away from easy seductive credit and start moving away from debt.