Six Steps to Get Out of Debt
Do you find yourself frequently paying bills after their due dates, bouncing cheques or receiving calls from collection agencies? These can all be warning signs of debt becoming unmanageable.
The good news is that there are steps you can take to get your finances back on track.
This guide is built to help you map out a plan for taking control of and managing your debt. It provides you with key steps to take, tips and links to more information and tools that will help you along the way.
Step 1: Make a budget
Get a handle on your finances by taking time to create a budget. A budget is like a roadmap for your finances: it tells you how much money you have, where it comes from and where it needs to go.
Making a budget is the most important step in taking control of your finances.
To build a budget, first identify how much money you have coming in and how much of it is going out. Be sure to keep track of all your debts, such as loans, credit cards, lines of credit, and your expenses. Your expenses should include all living expenses, such as your mortgage (or rent), utilities, groceries, and insurance. Be as detailed as you can!
The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada provides a comprehensive budget calculator that can help you get started.
Here are some additional resources and tools that are available for you to use:
- Budget Worksheet – Office of Consumer Affairs, Industry Canada
- Option consommateurs – La grille budgétaire (in French only) – You can use this spreadsheet to prepare your monthly budget and financial updates. The calculations are done automatically.
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Step 2: Check your credit health
Your credit report and credit score are two of the main tools that lenders use to determine whether or not they are willing to lend you money. They want to know if you will be able to pay your bills on time.
Your credit score goes up and down based on the information in your report. For example: making regular payments, on time, will gradually make your score rise, but missing payments will make it drop. In Canada, credit scores range from 300 to 900. Scores of 600 and over are considered to be good. Scores of 750 and over are generally considered excellent.
If you have a good credit score, you may be able to borrow money at a lower interest rate and pay less interest over the long term. Having a poor credit score can make it difficult to qualify for loans, credit cards, leases or mortgages, and sometimes result in higher interest rates. Your credit history can also affect your eligibility for some debt repayment options.
Take time to check your credit health every so often. Check your credit report and make sure that there are no errors in the report. You have the right to know what information is on your report and can get a copy of your credit report free of charge.
Improving your credit score takes time but there are many things you can do, such as using a secured credit card, and making sure you meet all your minimum monthly payments. The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada has more advice on what you can do to improve your credit.
Here are some additional resources on how to better understand your credit history:
- Credit Reports, Credit Scores and Credit Repair – Office of Consumer Affairs, Industry Canada.
- Understanding Your Credit Report and Credit Score – Financial Consumer Agency of Canada
- How to Request a Copy of Your Credit Report – Office of Consumer Affairs, Industry Canada
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Step 3: Map out a plan
Not sure where you should focus your efforts to start taking control of your debt? There are many strategies you can use to manage debt and start paying it off.
One option is to start by paying down the debt with the highest interest rate first. This means you'll pay less interest over time and will reduce your overall debt sooner. Another strategy is to start paying down the debt with the lowest balance. Knocking off a few debts quickly can help build momentum and motivate you to continue.
If you don't know where to start, consider booking a consultation with a budget or credit counsellor. They can help you identify debt management opportunities and build a debt reduction strategy. For example:
- Are there opportunities to consolidate loans (also known as debt pooling)?
- Are you able to negotiate your debt with your lenders and/or creditors?
- Are you working closely with your mortgage lender to find the best solutions for your budget?
- What kind of approach should you take with credit cards?
Remember, seeking help is not something that you should be afraid or ashamed of. A counselor will work with you to get you back on track and in control of your finances, or figure out an alternative solution.
Do your research! There are some less-than-reputable companies in the marketplace who may try to attract your attention with promises to help erase your debt and solve financial problems. Know your rights and check with your provincial regulator for more information on different debt management solutions.
Here are some resources on how to find a reputable budget counsellor and how to tackle debt consolidation:
- Budget Counselling – Seeking Help From the "Pros" – Office of Consumer Affairs, Industry Canada
- Credit Counselling Canada
- Canadian Association of Credit Counselling Services
- Coalition des associations de consommateurs du Québec (in French only) – Consumer associations that offer financial counselling services to residents of Québec
- Debt Consolidation – Office of Consumer Affairs, Industry Canada
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Step 4: Take control & take action
Once you've taken the time to create a budget and develop a plan, it's time to put it into action.
Whether you have chosen to make your own plan or are working with a credit counsellor, stick to your plan and be consistent. Try to make the minimum payments on all your debts by their due dates. When you do, any extra money you have from your budget can be put towards paying your target debt.
However, be realistic. If you cannot meet the payments you have set out in your plan, you may want to investigate alternatives including possibly bankruptcy. If you haven't already done so, this would be a good time to involve a professional.
Remember, sticking to your plan may not always be possible depending on your situation. The trick is to try and take control of your debt before it becomes overwhelming.
Here are some additional resources and tools on debt repayment:
- Getting out of debt – Financial Consumer Agency of Canada
- Credit Card Payment Calculator – Financial Consumer Agency of Canada
- What you need to know about collection agencies – Canadian Consumer Handbook
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Step 5: Stretch your dollar
Following a tight debt management plan can leave you trying to find ways to constantly stretch your money.
It is important to take a hard look at your expenses to see exactly where you can save money.
First, look at your budget. Are there small things you can do to save and bring down recurring expenses? Solutions can be as simple as planning your meals for the week to save on food, planning your commute to save time and money on gas, or adjusting your thermostat to save on your energy bill.
Next, take a look at your fixed costs. Many Canadians find themselves to be house poor – often paying too much for living expenses, such as their mortgage, insurance, utilities and more. The result is not having enough money to meet other financial needs. Becoming house poor is not always something you can control, but you can try to find ways to reduce some of those costs.
If you're having trouble with your mortgage, talk with your mortgage lender and work together to try and find a solution. Take a look at your insurance policies and compare rates; you may be able to get a better rate with your broker or an even better deal somewhere else. Likewise, you may be able to get a better rate for services such as telephone, television or Internet. Reducing those monthly costs could save you a lot of money over the course of a year.
Here are some additional resources and tools to help you stretch your dollar:
- Spending Smarter: Tips for Household Savings – Office of Consumer Affairs, Industry Canada
- Spending Smarter: My Expenses Calculator (How changing some expenses, like a latte a day, can affect your budget.) Office of Consumer Affairs, Industry Canada
- Fuel-efficient Driving Techniques – Office of Energy Efficiency, Natural Resources Canada
- Tips for Green Living (and stretching your dollar!) – Canadian Consumer Handbook
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Step 6: Planning ahead
Even once you're on track with your budget and have a debt management strategy, you need to keep an eye on the future.
While your budget will likely include amounts for savings and emergencies, you should always prepare for larger purchases, such as buying a car, household appliances, or even a new home. Plan and research these purchases before you make a financial commitment and make sure that you really know what you're getting into. For example: there may be additional costs above and beyond a vehicle's finance payments, or beyond your home's mortgage payments that need to be considered. These can add up and put a strain on your budget.
Here are some additional resources that can help you to start spending smarter.
- Homebuying Tools – Calculators – Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation
- Buying a Home – Canadian Consumer Handbook
- Driving Costs Calculator – Canadian Automobile Association
- Vehicle Purchase – Canadian Consumer Handbook
- Smart Buying Tips – Financial and Consumer Services Commission New Brunswick
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Now that you have a budget, have assessed and organized your financial situation and put a plan in place, be sure to continue a good habit of researching and looking for ways to save money and spend smarter.
This 6-step process provides you with a basic path to improved financial security, but there is plenty more information out there. Your provincial or territorial government will have additional information and resources to help you along the way.
Provincial and Territorial Consumer Affairs Offices
Ministry of Government and Consumer Services
Office de la protection du consommateur
- Nova Scotia
Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations
- New Brunswick
Financial and Consumer Services Commission
Tourism, Culture, Heritage, Sport and Consumer Protection
- British Columbia
Consumer Protection BC
- Prince Edward Island
Department of Justice and Public Safety
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