Seek help early if you are struggling with debt as deferrals end, experts say

OTTAWA — As payment deferrals offered during the height of the pandemic come to an end and many Canadians remain out of work or underemployed, experts say if you think you need financial help, the sooner you seek it the better.

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which came to an end at the end of September, helped almost nine million Canadians weather the pandemic and Ottawa has announced the new Canada Recovery Benefit for the self-employed who won't qualify for employment insurance.

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But the government aid programs only go so far and only if you qualify, so as payment deferrals on mortgages, car loans and credit cards expire, the bills will start piling up.

Taz Rajan, community engagement partner at insolvency trustees Bromwich+Smith in Calgary, says if you find yourself ignoring or minimizing your situation that can be an early warning sign that you need to take action before it becomes a real problem.

"There's been deferrals for a while so you haven't really necessarily had to service all of your debt," she said.

Other warning signs to watch for, she says, is if your anxiety is interfering your sleep or you are feeling distracted at work

"If you're finding there's more month than money or all of the money that comes into your account is going to service your debt, that is definitely a sign you want to reach out for help," Rajan said.

While many Canadians have adjusted to working from home or returned to work since the lockdowns of the spring have eased, many people remain out of work or working fewer hours due to the pandemic.

Bankruptcy filings dropped in the spring as government aid programs kicked in and lenders offered deferral programs to help struggling Canadians, but as the crisis has continued, those deferral programs are now coming to an end and payments will need to resume.

Credit Counselling Canada is offering free financial health checkups to help Canadians assess where they stand.

"CERB helped many people stay afloat hoping for better times and the shift to EI and other programs like the CRB will be helpful, but the fact is a lot of Canadians are going to see less funds coming from those sources," said Michelle Pommells, the association's chief executive.

She said while many Canadians know what the financial warning signs are, many don't know where to look for help if they are struggling with debt.

An online survey done for the association at the end of August found that 37 per cent had no idea where to turn when facing financial difficulty, while 23 per cent would pretend the problem doesn’t exist.

"Rather like compound interest, unfortunately debt just compounds and gets worse unless you deal with it, so burying your head in the sand is not the answer," she said.

Pommells said non-profit credit counselling organizations can offer unbiased advice for those seeking help.

"A non-profit credit counsellor will sit down with you and explain all the options that are available to you," she said.

Pommells suggested that as the crisis has dragged on, those helped by Ottawa's aid programs have also likely been burning through savings and others sources of cash to help carry themselves through the summer and now those funds may be running out.

"Now is the time to reach out and recognize that the warning signs of debt are important, but they can only be addressed if people take action," she said.

Rajan says there can be a lot of shame and stigma associated with debt, but being able to talk about it is important.

"It is about that normalizing the conversation, we haven't gotten there yet, but that's what we're hoping to do," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 8, 2020.

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