Managing debt in a (continually) rising interest rate environment

Between 2009 and early 2022, Canadians lived (and borrowed) in an ultra-low interest rate environment. Between January 2009 and March 2022, the bank rate (from which commercial interest rates are determined) was (except, briefly, in the fall of 2018) never higher than 1.50% – and was almost always lower than that. Effectively, adult Canadians who are now under the age of 35 have had no experience of managing their finances in high – or even, by historical standards, ordinary – interest rate environments.

That prolonged period of low interest rates (which coincided, not surprisingly, with an explosion in the amount of debt taken on by Canadians) came to an abrupt halt in the spring of 2022. The Bank of Canada increased interest rates in March of 2022, and followed that up with nine further interest rate increases between March 2022 and July 2023. As a result of those increases the bank rate has, over that 16-month period, gone from .25% to 5.00% – a twenty-fold increase – and commercial interest rates on all credit products have increased commensurately.

Unfortunately, it isn’t likely that Canadians can anticipate any interest rate relief in the short-term. The Bank of Canada has made it clear in its public announcements that it is committed to reducing the rate of inflation to the Bank’s 2% core inflation rate target, and that one of its major tools to effect that reduction is increases in interest rates. In its latest press release on the subject issued on July 12, 2023, the Bank’s projection was that “inflation is forecast to hover around 3% for the next year before gradually declining to 2% in the middle of 2025.”

The impact of the recent rapid increase in interest rates on average Canadians can’t really be overstated. A common measure of individual indebtedness is the ratio of debt to disposable income – in other words, the percentage represented by the amount of debt relative to the debtor’s annual income. In the first quarter of 2023, the ratio of debt to disposable income for an average Canadian family stood at p-184.5%. In other words, on average, the debt load carried by Canadians is now just under twice their annual disposable income.

Of course, what matters most to individuals is not necessarily the size of the debt they are carrying, but the cost of servicing that debt – the amount of the monthly credit card, line of credit, or mortgage payments – all of which will, of course, increase as interest rates go up. For several years, financial advisors and government and banking officials have been sounding warnings that the debt loads which Canadians were carrying were likely sustainable only at the extremely low interest rates then in effect. Their concern was that when, inevitably, those rates returned to historically “normal” levels the burden of repaying, or even servicing, those debts would be unsustainable. And that time has come.

Given that those are the unavoidable current and future realities, it’s necessary to consider what strategies are available to Canadians who are carrying substantial amounts of debt on how to manage the upcoming months and possibly years of increased interest charges.

In considering available strategies, it’s important to draw a distinction between secured and unsecured debt. Put simply, the former is debt which is secured by the value of an underlying asset and, if the debtor fails to make payments on the debt, the lender is entitled to seize that underlying asset and sell it to satisfy any outstanding debt amount owed. The types of secured debt most familiar to Canadians are, of course, a mortgage or a car loan. Unsecured debt, on the other hand, is provided solely on the strength of the borrower’s promise to repay, and credit cards are most common example of unsecured debt owed by Canadians.

While any type of debt can cause problems for borrowers, when interest rates go up it’s usually those who are carrying unsecured debt who are the first to feel the pinch. Not only is the rate of interest payable on unsecured debt higher than that imposed on secured debt, the interest rate on such unsecured debt is usually a “variable” rate, meaning that it will go up with every increase in the bank rate. And, of course, debtors whose debt is secured by an underlying asset and who find that carrying that debt is no longer manageable always have the option of selling that asset and using the proceeds to retire the outstanding balance of the loan – an option that isn’t available when it comes to unsecured debt.

For those who are carrying outstanding debt, the obvious advice is to get the debt paid down as quickly as possible. That is, however, easier said than done, especially when the interest component of the debt is increasing.

Even where repayment of the debt over the short-term isn’t a realistic expectation, such individuals do, however, have some options, as outlined below.

Liquidating assets

Because interest rates have been so low in recent years, it’s become relatively common to carry debt even when the debtor has sufficient assets to pay off that debt. In many cases, individuals have borrowed money for the purpose of investing it, on the assumption that the interest payable would be less than the investment gains earned. That may no longer be a valid assumption. Where someone who is carrying unsecured debt has an asset or assets that can be sold, it makes sense to first consider whether it makes sense to use the proceeds from the sale of such assets to clear the debt.

Paying off debt from savings

While tapping into retirement savings should be a last resort, individuals carrying unsecured debt could consider using funds held in a tax-free savings account or just in a savings account to pay off or pay down the debt, and thereby reduce or eliminate carrying charges on that debt.

Reducing the interest rate payable

Where there are not sufficient assets available to eliminate unsecured debt, the next step would be to consider trying to lower the rate of interest being charged on that debt. Much unsecured debt owed by Canadians is in the form of credit card debt, which carries some of the highest interest rates around. Often debt carried on credit cards can be consolidated into a single bank loan or line of credit at a lower rate of interest.

Fixing the interest rate payable

If a lower interest rate can’t be obtained, then debtors would be well advised to at least try and prevent future rate increases by fixing the interest rate currently in place. While no one can claim to be able to predict future interest rates with certainty, the Bank of Canada has clearly signaled that interest rates are likely to continue rising. If the debt is in good standing – that is, payments have been made on time and in at least the minimum amount required – it may be possible to transfer the amount owed, either to another credit card with a fixed rate of interest, or to a personal loan with both a fixed rate of interest and a fixed repayment schedule.

Looking for an interest rate holiday

It’s not uncommon for credit card companies, in order to get new customers, to offer an “interest holiday”. Essentially, the offer is that if a debtor transfers an outstanding balance from another card to a new card issued by the soliciting company (or even to a card already held by the debtor), that debt will be interest-free or at a very low rate of interest for a fixed period – usually about six to nine months.

There is a cost associated with such offers – usually around 1% to 3% of the amount transferred. And, of course, such a course of action offers no more than a temporary reprieve from high interest rate charges, but it can be enough to provide the debtor with a little breathing room while more long term or permanent solutions are sought.

Those who are already in financial difficulty in relation to their outstanding debts – unable to make the minimum monthly required payment, or missing payments – require a different approach. Such individuals can obtain debt/credit counselling through any number of non-profit agencies, who can work with them, and with their creditor(s), to create a manageable repayment schedule. More information on the credit counselling process, and a listing of such non-profit agencies can be found at