The economic system depends on high levels of consumer activity. The more we spend—the more mindlessly we spend—the better for the economy. Never mind what it does to the lives of those who spend beyond their means and end up deeply in debt.
Over-indebtedness is a frequent media topic these days because it has become a fact of life in the consumer culture. Concern is not just about the magnitude of the debt load, but the rapid increase in the past 10 years. In 2000, the debt-to-income ratio in Canada was 98/100; in 2005 it was 116/100; and in its most recent report on the state of Canadian family finances, the Vanier Institute indicated that the debt-to-income ratio had reached 153/100 by the third quarter of 2011.
How do we think we can sustain this? Such high levels of personal debt leave people unable to cope with emergencies. All their money is committed to basic expenses such as food, shelter, and paying interest on their debt. This leads to a cycle of ever-increasing reliance on credit to fill in money gaps that get continually larger. When credit cards are maxed out, people turn to consolidation and payday loans. Consolidation loans are tricky. Unless you know how to use them with finesse, they are a quick route to a perpetual downward spiral of debt. When these loans no longer work, desperate borrowers turn to payday loans. With those, there is simply no way to get ahead—unless you are the lender.
This is the environment into which we are sending our young adults—usually with very little preparation for the apparent “opportunities” they will encounter. It’s no wonder they end up over-indebted. They do not intend to do a bad job with money. They are just not mentally and emotionally prepared to deal with the minefield they are stepping into. We can do better. The big question is: When will we start?