Rob Carrick: Change The Way We Borrow & Save

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Canadians Worried About Debt

Today's guest is Rob Carrick, personal finance columnist for the Globe & Mail. When the Globe announced they were going to start a financial boot-camp, Rob discovered that the most urgent concern for Canadians is debt, and they told Rob that they are in debt because they can't control their spending.

This is a significant problem and Rob believes that the current low interest rate environment has encouraged Canadians to borrow more than they should, leading to our very high debt levels. Rob suggests that we need to change the way we borrow and that perhaps what we really need is

a shock to get us out of [our borrowing habits].

Much like the housing market crash in the United States, Rob believes that Canada needs a similar wake up call to learn a harsh lesson about reducing our debt load.

Even though interest rates may be at an all time low, Rob talks about how debt sets the stage for problems down the road;

  • Do you have the cash cushion to ride a shock like what is happening in Alberta right now?
  • Are you ready for retirement?

Save or Pay Off Debt?

Rob states emphatically that if you have high interest rate debt, like credit cards, you should pay those off first, no questions asked.

However, if you have a low interest rate mortgage, say 3%, and are earning 6% after tax on your investments, Rob believes it's prudent to pay your mortgage off in the normal course, and devote all extra money to your retirement savings.  He makes the case that we should not obsess about our mortgage because we're already on a plan to pay it off.

Saving for retirement beats paying down your mortgage.

As I say on the show, I understand the math, but I worry that if the stock market has a serious correction (like it did in 2008), we will look back and wish that we had used our extra funds to reduce our debt.  One piece advice for deciding which approach to take is to assess your own ability to handle risk and whether changes in the stock market are worth investing rather than paying down your mortgage.

Gen Y

In our Let's Get Started segment we discuss "Generation Y".  Rob defines this generation as young people, generally in their twenties, who are just starting out in the workforce.  They face two unique challenges:

  1. Under-employment.  They can find a job, but it may not be in their chosen career, so it's difficult to gain work experience.
  2. The prevalence of contract and temporary jobs.  Young people working in these roles have no benefits and no job security.

Rob's advice for Generation Y is to think about what you want to study in school, with a view to future employment, and keep student loan debt to a minimum.  He suggests that those just starting out think about how to make themselves marketable to employers.  This may not mean studying a subject because you are passionate about it, but rather, studying a subject that you know will lead to a career and gaining industry skills that are valuable to employers.

Resources Mentioned

FULL TRANSCRIPT show #29 with Rob Carrick

borrow-save-transcriptDoug Hoyes: Welcome to Debt Free in 30, where every week we take 30 minutes and talk to industry experts about debt, money and personal finance. I’m Doug Hoyes.

Today my guest is Rob Carrick, a personal finance columnist for the Globe and Mail. I’m a regular reader of all of Mr. Carrick’s columns and what I like best about them is he focuses on answering the questions that regular Canadians ask about money. He has a skill for taking complicated issues and making them simple.

I follow Rob Carrick on Twitter and he’s @rcarrick if you want to follow him. And a few months ago he announced on Twitter that The Globe and Mail was going to start a financial boot camp. So, my first question for Rob was, why start a financial boot camp? Here’s his answer.

Rob Carrick: Well, we just thought that it might be a chance for us to find out what’s on the minds of people in terms of what they were worried about and what they wanted to know. And then in exchange for that maybe we could provide some suggestions to help get them on the right track.

Doug Hoyes: So, what were the kind of things then that you heard from people? What were the big bugaboos? What were their big problems?

Rob Carrick: Well, it’s really interesting, you know what. We divided the – first of all we used social media very casually to put out the word that we were doing this. We just thought that would be the first phase and then we would put it in the paper and stuff, and within minutes, people were contacting us and almost within 24 hours we were – we topped out. We thought, okay we have to stop publicizing this; we’ve got too many people. Hundreds of people giving us detailed information on their finances.

Now we divided the topics up into about four or five different categories and the number one one by far was debt. People were saying I can’t handle my debt. I owe too much and I need help to get a handle on this. What was interesting is you think okay why are people in debt? Are they struggling to get by on a low income? What is it? Uncontrolled spending, people – the theme was I can’t stop myself from spending money.

Doug Hoyes: So, that’s an interesting response. This survey was started on social media and the number one concern expressed by the average Canadian was that they have too much debt. And the reason for that debt was that quite simply, they couldn’t control their spending.

Rob Carrick: Yep, they all said I can’t control my spending. One guy said I always have to buy the latest golf clubs. Another one said, he was living in a sort of far flung community and he said I can’t stop internet shopping. Another woman said, every time I go out on my lunch break, I go out for lunch and then I buy stuff for my daughter. It was just over and over and others said I just love gambling and travelling and eating out at restaurants. People want a certain lifestyle and sometimes they can’t afford it, but they keep on anyway.

Doug Hoyes: And so is the solution is as simple as it sounds, spend less?

Rob Carrick: Well, it is. But you know what? That’s just not a recipe that people can instantly adopt and we both know that. You know what because there’s been so much preaching in the last four or five years about how debt levels are high and we need to get a handle on it. People are only happy when they’re spending money. It’s a sad thing to say but I really think it’s true in a lot of cases.

Doug Hoyes: So, is there a solution then?

Rob Carrick: Well, I think what may have to happen is what happened in the United States to a much less sharp degree. In the States, you know we had this big housing crash and there was a retrenchment and now Americans are far, far less indebted than Canadians are. They really took that harsh lesson to heart and they’ve made big changes in how they borrow.

In fact, up until recently there was a lot of economists expressing surprise about how little the American consumer was spending given that the economy was getting better. But here in Canada, our economy sort of, it’s flat lining, it’s sort of a tepid level and we’re spending more and more all the time. I mean look at borrowing levels that keep going up. So, it may be that we need a shock to get us out of this. I’m not sure but it does seem as if people want to keep spending and there’s really no end in sight.

Doug Hoyes: What you’re talking about is human nature.

Rob Carrick: Well you know, what is human nature? You go back about 20 years, 20 years plus, human nature was to be a saver. It was to put savings first and if there was any money left over, that’s what you spent. Now we spend first and what’s ever is left over, we save that.

Doug Hoyes: And why has that changed then? Why 20 years ago were we a nation of savers and now we’re a nation of spenders? What happened?

Rob Carrick: I think the biggest thing was the interest rates plunged. And it made debt seem cheap and reasonable, and you know the stigma about debt is pretty much gone.

In fact, this is interesting and I’m sure you know this, the number cohort as far as I can see where debt is growing on a percentage basis is seniors. I thought these were supposed to be the people who understood the value of a dollar, they survived the depression or else they at least can recall the depression and they’re not making it, on whatever they’ve saved, they’re dipping into credit to buy stuff. Although comparatively they don’t have much debt, but the growth there is the highest of any age group.

Doug Hoyes: You’re right. This is a big issue. We’re seeing more and more seniors with debt. We’re doing an increasing number of bankruptcies and consumer proposals for people over the age of 60 who have debt and are carrying debt into retirement. So, it’s a serious issue. So, what’s causing these debt problems? Do you think it’s our current low interest rate environment that has encouraged people to borrow more than they should and that’s what’s leading to the very high debt levels?

Rob Carrick: I do. I think part of it is this consumer culture we live in. First of all there is super saturation of the ‘buy stuff’ message. It used to be maybe there was radio and television and billboards and magazines, but now you have the internet, social media. Now we’re exposed to these messages all the time.

Housing has become such a big thing, it’s almost a religion. Parents insist their kids buy a house and when you buy a house, you’ve got to furnish the house and then you’ve got to renovate the house and make it look beautiful and make it look like the real you and that puts a huge burden on people to spend money. So you’ve got that, plus free credit, free and easy credit because interest rates are so low. So, it’s a strong combination.

Doug Hoyes: So, do you think that high debt is really a problem? Interest rates are at an all time lows, delinquency rates, and you’ve written about it, are also relatively low and the rate of increase in our borrowing seems to be slowing down a bit. So, is debt something we even need to worry about or can we just coast until things get better?

Rob Carrick: I think we need to worry about it; I really think we do. Because here’s what I’m thinking, if we are at a level where we’re at a historic high in the debt income ratio, so that means a lot of our money, a lot of our household cash flow, is going towards debt. What is it crowding out? Is it crowding out retirement savings? Is it crowing out people having emergency funds? Is it crowding out people being able to ride over short term difficulties? I suspect the answer is yes to that.

There’s a lot of stress caused by debt. At our debt boot camp people said over and over again about how stressed they were about not – about being overwhelmed by debt, by not being able to save enough. People understand in their gut, that there’s something wrong here but they’re not at the point where they’re doing something about it yet. But I do think we’re setting the stage for problems down the road.

And you know what that’s not even saying that interest rates are going to rise and put stress on people. Because rates are low and I mean I’ve been warning them for ages that they’re going to rise but it does seem like we’re sort of stuck in a rut economically and that’s going to keep rates low for awhile. Even if they go up it’s not going to be dramatically most likely. So, that’s going to put stress on them. But even aside from that, I think there are hidden problems caused by this debt situation.

Doug Hoyes: I’m the same as you. For years and years I’ve been saying the same thing that interest rates are going up and obviously you and I have both been wrong for the last few years. So, you said hidden problems, so if interest rates going up tomorrow isn’t the problem, what are the things that we need to be worrying about?

Rob Carrick: Okay, here’s something, let’s look at what’s happening in Alberta where they have been hit hard by oil prices. Do the people there have a cash cushion to protect them if they’re out of work for a few months? Can they ride that or do they owe so much that they’re going to start defaulting and the next thing you know they’re making consumer proposals or seeing credit counsellors or even declaring bankruptcy. And what about their retirement savings? I mean the younger you are, the more personal responsibility there’s going to be on you to save for your own retirement. Younger workers are – they don’t have company pensions, they’re working on contract often. You’ve really got to – I think today’s 20, 30 year olds got to start saving for retirement and do it gradually and steadily through their whole lifetime. But if you’re carrying a lot of debt, I don’t know how you do that.

Doug Hoyes: Well, you can’t. By definition savings and being in debt are the exact opposite. It’s time for a break and when we come back I would like to get your thoughts on retirement. You’ve said that saving for retirement beats paying down your mortgage. I’m not sure whether or not I agree with that.

So, let’s take a break and when we come back I would like to hear how you think saving for retirement is better than paying down your mortgage. My guest today is Rob Carrick, the personal finance columnist with The Globe and Mail.

Announcer:       You’re listening to Debt Free in 30 with Doug Hoyes. We’ll be right back.

Doug Hoyes: Welcome back. My guest today is Rob Carrick, the personal finance columnist from The Globe and Mail. So, Rob you recently wrote that saving for retirement beats paying down your mortgage. That strikes me as a risky suggestion because there is always a risk to carrying debt. So, why do you think that it’s more important to save for retirement than it is to pay down your debt?

Rob Carrick: Yeah, if you have extra money – there was a report done by a guy at CIBC who basically crunched the numbers – this is not rocket science, if the rate you can get on your investments beats the rate you’re paying on your debt, than it’s financially more beneficial to do the investing. And right now it’s not even close. People are carrying mortgages between 2.5 and 3 percent very commonly. And you can get about 6 percent on the markets even if you invest enough, a fairly low cost, diversified portfolio. So, it’s really not that close even. Rates would have to jump up a fair bit to make it a fair fight between paying down debt and investing.

But I have to specify, we’re talking about mortgages here. We’re not talking about credit cards, we’re not talking about loans and we’re not talking about unsecured credit lines where you might be paying 5 or 6 percent plus. In those cases it makes sense to pay down the debt because the return on your investments is probably going to be the same or less than the cost of your debt.

Doug Hoyes: Yeah, obviously if you have a 20 percent credit card then-

Rob Carrick: Oh my god if you have a 20 percent credit card, every spare cent has to go against that. You’ve got to kill that balance.

Doug Hoyes: So, do you worry about the stock market? I understand your basic premise, if you’re paying 3 percent on your mortgage and earning 6 percent on your RSP or after tax on in the stock market, it’s a no brainer. But what happens if we have 1987 or 2008 all over again and the market drops 20 percent? Don’t you wipe out a few years of that advantage all in one fell swoop?

Rob Carrick: You do. But then you hang on for a couple of years and the market comes back. Look if we can live through 2008/09, we can live through anything. That was historically nuclear level disaster. And you know what? We’re about six or seven years past it and the markets have skyrocketed since then. My god, everybody wishes they bought more when the markets were down.

So, I mean if you’re going to measure this in one or two year chunks, then you could have a nasty surprise for investments. But if you take the proper approach and say I’m going to make a 10 year commitment here, I’m going to pick some smart, diversified stuff and stick it out for 10 years, you will have a very, very, very good chance of beating that mortgage pay down.

Everybody wants to pay down their mortgage and if you look – I’ve seen a couple of surveys in the last couple of weeks, people saying - or they’re asked - if you had extra money what would you do? Pay down your debt or save and invest for retirement or just for general purposes? And everybody’s saying pay down your debt. And to me that tells two things, one people want the sure thing and that pay down is a sure thing. And two they’ve got borrowers regret and they realize they borrowed too much and they think I’ve got to somehow get from under this. And this is them finally realizing this is not a good situation, I’ve got to do something.

Doug Hoyes: Yeah and you’re right. It’s really the risk that you mitigate by paying down your debt. Once you’ve got your debt paid off, nothing can go wrong. Even if you lose your job you’re not stuck with debt payments. And I think that’s probably what’s fuelling the psyche of it at the moment.

Rob Carrick: Yeah I think so too. But I think people really have to take the long view because if you’ve got a paid off house that’s great, but that doesn’t pay the freight and retirement, unless you want to take a reverse mortgage or something like that. I think people are going to find that when they get to 65 that a paid up RSP is going to be quite a good friend to him.

Doug Hoyes: Yeah or a TFSA or -

Rob Carrick: A TFSA or anything. I don’t care how you save it. It’s just that pouring the money into your house to get to this magical day when you’re debt free, you can be missing 20 years of great compounding to get your retirement savings kick started.

Doug Hoyes: Yeah so your time frame obviously has a lot to do with it. So, what’s your thought process then on advising someone who has debt now and – I mean let’s assume they’ve got a mortgage but they’ve also got some other less good debt, credit cards, bank loans, whatever. What’s the thought process there?

Rob Carrick: Well, you know what? It’s triage, you go for the worst, most painful first and that would be credit cards and then you look at any loans that you have. I’d say car loans but unless you’re – you didn’t get any incentives from the dealer, you probably got a pretty good rate on your car loan as well. Secured credit lines, I mean if you have a home equity line of credit you should probably pay 3 - 3.5 percent.  Unsecured you could add a couple of percentage points to that, that might be a good candidate to pay down. Any kind of consumer loans, pay those down.

But strictly speaking on the mortgage, which is what people are obsessed about, especially places like Toronto or Vancouver, they have these ginormous mortgages, set your payments for the bi-weekly accelerated plan, right away you’ve reduced 25 to about 22 odd years right there and be content with that. Your mortgage is going to kill itself off in 22 years, what else can you work on in your finances?

Doug Hoyes: Yeah, so chip away at it and so deal with the high interest rate stuff first, that’s number one.

Rob Carrick: Totally number one and even the mid interest rate stuff too. Mortgages are the one I really think people are obsessing too much. It’s the biggest debt and it weighs on people, they’re probably buying houses they can barely afford. But a mortgage is the cheapest debt going and you’re already on a plan to pay it off.

Doug Hoyes: So, therefore don’t obsess about that.

Rob Carrick: Don’t obsess about it. You know what? Get used to it. Get some money working in your retirement account.

Doug Hoyes: And I guess if you want to obsess about it, fine, sell your house and rent then, then you don’t have to worry about it.

Rob Carrick: [laughter] That’s true, or downsize. Or if you’re on the knife’s edge wondering if you should buy a house, maybe this is a good nugget to think about in terms of not doing it or waiting another year or two to build up your down payment so you don’t have to borrow quite as much and it will be more manageable for you.

Doug Hoyes: So, when we talk about mortgages, that’s a topic that impacts a lot of young people who are trying to get into the housing market. You’ve done a lot of writing in The Globe and Mail about Gen Y.

So, let’s use our remaining time today to talk about Generation Y and some of the unique challenges they face. So, to start what’s your definition of Gen Y?

Rob Carrick: Well, Gen Y, I consider to be anyone in their 20’s and early to mid 30’s or let’s say late teens can be added to those groups. They’re basically today’s young people who are either coming out of high school, coming out of university, getting established in the workforce.

Doug Hoyes: And they are different than you and me. Let’s assume you and I are both over the age of 30. Why? Because they’re facing a different, uncertain job future, what’s different?

Rob Carrick: A lot of people think they’re different in their makeup and they’re thinking and there are a few differences but I don’t like to say they’re entitled, they’re lazy, they’re – they don’t have any get up and go like the older generation. I think that’s a bunch of crap to be honest with you. Bitter old people mad at young people.

But if you want to look at the environment in which they live, then things are different. I think the job market is a lot tougher. The national unemployment rate for youth is about double the regular rate and that’s pretty standard through history. But there are two hidden problems. One, under employment, people getting jobs but they’re not career building jobs. The other problem is the number of contract jobs and unpaid internships out there. It’s really tough to get a job at a place where you can build a career. People don’t want to give young people those kind of jobs anymore. They want bodies to fill positions. They want total flexibility to get rid of people, they don’t want people on their benefits plan, they don’t want people on their pension plan.

And I don’t think the older generation gets quite how difficult it is to get situated in the work place. And if you doubt me, go talk to some parents of Gen Y kids and you will get an earful. No matter where I go I hear the stories. My kid has this problem, my kid can’t find a job and these are parents at all income levels, at all class levels. It’s incredible how this problem strikes everyone.

Doug Hoyes: And so as a result of that background, what’s your advice for people in that age group then?

Rob Carrick: You know what? My number one piece of advice is: be smart about what you study. I keep hearing study what you’re passionate about. Is that not the worst advice ever? That’s not to say you shouldn’t study what you’re passionate about but you’ve got to make a living. You have to understand what employers out there want. And make sure that whatever you study that you got your eye on making yourself marketable. I don’t care what you study, although god knows there are certain fields that are in high demand and there are certain fields that aren’t.

So, if you’re in the art aspect, what can you do to buff up your credentials? Should you get a college certificate on top of your undergrad degree? Maybe so, maybe you need to change programs. I don’t know, but I think you need to start helping kids in high school sharpen their thinking about what they’re going to do in terms of how will I establish myself in the workforce? What can I do that will make employers want to hire me?

Doug Hoyes: That’s good advice. So, if you’re starting your post secondary education, think about what skills you can acquire to make employers want to hire you.

We’re running short of time so we’ll continue talking about Gen Y in the Let’s Get Started heard on most of these stations and in our Debt Free in 30 podcast available on iTunes.

Rob, thanks for joining me today. That’s my conversation with Rob Carrick of The Globe and Mail. I’ll be right back to wrap it up here on Debt Free in 30.

Announcer:       You’re listening to Debt Free in 30. Here’s your host Doug Hoyes.

Doug Hoyes: Welcome back. It’s time for the 30 second recap of what we discussed today. On today’s show Rob Carrick, the personal finance columnist for The Globe and Mail, told us that when he put the word out that The Globe was starting a financial boot camp and he asked people to tell him their number one financial concern, it was a landslide. Canadians are very concerned about debt. And they’re very concerned that they have debt because they can’t control their spending.

Rob also stated that in today’s low interest rate environment, saving for retirement beats paying down your mortgage. That’s the 30 second recap of what we discussed today.

So, what’s my take on Rob’s message that you should prioritize saving for retirement over paying down your mortgage? That’s a tricky one. I understand his math. If you can earn 6 percent investing in the stock market and your mortgage only costs 3 percent, why pay off your mortgage? It’s better to earn the spread. My worry, as I mentioned on the show, is that the stock market won’t go up forever. And when we have the next inevitable correction, that spread may not look so attractive.

My advice is to consider your personal appetite for risk. If you have a long time horizon and can accept risk, fine. If you don’t like risk, you’ll probably sleep easier by reducing all forms of debt. That’s our show for today. Full show notes are available on our website, including links to Rob’s website and his articles from The Globe and Mail.

So, please go to our website at hoyes.com, that h-o-y-e-s-dot-com for more information. Thanks for listening. Until next week, I’m Doug Hoyes, that was Debt Free in 30.

Let’s Get Started Segment

It’s time for the Let’s Get Started segment here in Debt Free in 30. My guest today is Rob Carrick, the personal finance columnist for The Globe and Mail. And on today’s show we started talking about Gen Y, which Rob defines as people in their late teens and 20’s. These are people that are just starting out in life. They finished high school and have probably finished college and university and are starting their first jobs.

As Rob explained they have similar wants and needs as all the rest of us. They want a good place to live, they want a good job but they have many challenges that those of us who are older didn’t face when we were younger. For example the job market is a lot tougher now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. The unemployment rate remains very high for younger workers but there are two other problems. First, under-employment, where you have a job but it’s not a job that will help you advance in your chosen career. The other problem is the number of contract and temporary jobs. It’s very common today to have to take a job on contract when you start working. You have no benefits and you have no job security.

So, what’s Rob’s advice? He says it is important to be smart about what you study. It’s great to study something you think you’re passionate about but if you can’t find a job in your field, your education may have little practical value. It may be wise to get a university degree, but also to get a college diploma to make you more valuable to a perspective employer. And that’s why Rob’s number one piece of advice is to consider how you can make yourself marketable to a perspective employer.

Of course post-secondary education is expensive. Many students today need to get a student loan to pay for college or university. Is that a good idea? Is it wise to borrow for your education? Here’s Rob’s answer to my question about whether or not student loans are a good idea.

Rob Carrick: Well, I’d like to see people take steps to minimize student debt or contain it. But student debt, I would classify that under good debt. I think it’s better debt than house debt to be honest. There is a clear connection between advancing your education and making more and having a better career. So, it’s worthwhile doing, but I think you have to do it less indiscriminately. Let’s think harder about what we’re studying and make sure we’ll get a good bang for our buck out of it.

Doug Hoyes: And that’s very hard to do when you’re 18 or 19 years old.

Rob Carrick: It is hard to do but you know what? The system has never even tried it. I’ve got – I’m well over than 30, I’ve got two boys, one is in his 20’s and in his third year of university and one is 17. So, I’m pretty familiar on how university prepares young people – or how high school prepares young people or college and university and it’s pitiful.

Doug Hoyes: Yeah.

Rob Carrick: First of all there is no exposure of anything to do with the trades, there’s not talk of the entrepreneurial side of it. It’s all just here are the university and colleges, here’s the websites and make your applications, here’s the dates, see you later.

Doug Hoyes: Yep. I have a 17 year old son as well, and it’s exactly as you describe it. You know you take whatever the test is and then you get all these letters from all these universities across the world saying, hey why don’t you apply to us? But that’s totally a meaningless thing. What am I going to study? Where do I want to go? And it’s hard when you’re 17 years old having to be making those decisions.

Rob Carrick: It’s really hard. We’re asking a lot of kids and I think we’re going to have to accept that they’re going to make some bad choices, made in totally good faith. And they go out and study something for a year or two and realize this is just not what I want to do. Unfortunately, those are costly mistakes, but it’s nothing wrong with changing your course of study to make it something that you want to do and hopefully that someone will want to hire you to do.

Doug Hoyes: Yeah and that’s about all you can do. So, your kind of wrap up advice to the Gen Y’ers is you got to think.

Rob Carrick: You got to think, yeah. It’s really, really tough out there to just sort of coast through without thinking.

I have to be honest when I was going to university in the mid 1980’s there were jobs all over the place. People tell me oh we were just coming off of a brutal recession; I had no conception of that recession when I was coming out of university. I was looking for journalism jobs and maybe they weren’t as quite as plentiful, but all the big newspapers hired interns and I had no trouble finding work, I really didn’t. And all a lot of friends who just took the A’s in various subjects, they all got jobs and they all have nice careers. It’s just not quite that easy anymore.

Doug Hoyes: It’s the same with me. I graduated in 87 and at that time, yeah there were lots of jobs, just the way it was. So, I guess that’s what they’ve got to do. They’ve got to think about what they really want to do and they’ve got to think about what is out there.

Rob Carrick: I agree. I think that’s exactly right. Give it some thought, talk to your parents, talk to your guidance counsellors, talk to older cousins or friends or contacts who have been to university and have had a little taste of the job world. They can give you some great tips on how to approach things.

Doug Hoyes: Thanks Rob, that’s great, practical advice. I agree the best source of information for a student entering college or university is someone who’s already there and understands the process. The key point is to consider what you want to study, but also what will help you get a job when you graduate and then do your best to keep your student loan borrowings to a minimum. That’s the Let’s Get Started segment here on Debt Free on 30. Thanks for listening.