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What’s the fastest way to accumulate so much debt that you have no option but to file bankruptcy in Canada? As a bankruptcy trustee I have handled thousands of personal bankruptcy filings over the last two decades, and the answer to that question, based on my experience, is easy:

Credit cards.

If you want to get into serious financial trouble, excessive credit card debt is a sure fire way to invite financial disaster.

Two years ago my firm did a study of “Joe Debtor”, the average person who declares bankruptcy in Canada. Our study showed that 93% of Canadians that file personal bankruptcy or a consumer proposal have credit card debt, and the average they owed on their credit cards at the time of filing was just under $20,000. (With other debts, like taxes and lines of credit, the total unsecured debt was just over $50,000).

The facts are clear: it’s unlikely that someone with no credit card debt will have a need to file bankruptcy. The more credit card debt you have, the more likely it is that bankruptcy may be in your future. Why is that?

First, in the past, credit cards were easy to get. We all remember the “boom times” up to 2008, when many of us received numerous credit card offers in the mail each week. We were all “pre-approved” for a $10,000 gold, or platinum, credit card with a “low introductory” rate. Remember? You said “great, I can transfer my balance from my high interest rate card to the low rate card, and save money!” And you did.

But then your car broke down and you needed money for repairs, or you were off sick from work, or some other problem occurred and you needed money. You had unused credit on the credit card you just paid off, so you used it. But now, of course, you have a problem: instead of just owing money on one credit card, you are now carrying a balance on two cards. That puts you in a cash flow squeeze every month.

Then you realized that the “low introductory rate” was only temporary, and after six months your interest rate went way up, so now you are paying even more each month.

High interest rates are a problem, but for most people who declare bankruptcy their financial problems became critical when something happened in their lives: job loss, a marriage break up, or perhaps a health issue that caused them to miss work and led to reduced income.

It’s now 2010, and ever since the “credit crisis” of 2008 the flow of credit card offers in our mailboxes has slowed to a trickle, or disappeared entirely. The days of easy access to credit are over, at least for now.

Even more challenging for Canadians with credit card debts is the reality that credit card issuers are tightening up their credit requirements. Based on the stories I have heard over the last few weeks from the dozens of people in debt I meet with each week, it appears that the credit card issuers are in the process of “culling” their credit card portfolios. They are identifying higher risk clients, and raising their interest rates to encourage them to go elsewhere. Here’s a typical story from a lady I met with this week, with her name changed to protect her privacy:

Jane is single, and has carried a large balance on her ABC Credit Card for many years. Over the years ABC has gradually increased her credit limit, and for many years they offered her what she believed was an attractive interest rate of 9.9%. Her minimum payment was about $430 per month, which was manageable based on her income. Last week she got her monthly statement, and the minimum required payment was increased to $750 per month.

She assumed that it was a mistake, so she called ABC Credit Card Company, and they advised her that no, it was not a mistake. Due to changes by the “regulatory board” her interest rate was now much higher, resulting in a higher minimum monthly payment.

When I met with her I explained that I had never heard of the “regulatory board” (although I am familiar with the new credit card regulations), but it’s easy to see what the credit card company is doing. The balance owing on her credit card was over $20,000; it is by far her largest debt. On her current income it is unlikely that she will ever be able to repay the debt. The credit card company realizes this, so they are attempting to get rid of her as a client before she defaults on the amount owing. Their hope is that her credit is still good enough to allow her to borrow from someone else, and repay them.

Unfortunately for Jane, she has no assets to pledge as collateral for a loan, and she has no family members that are able to co-sign for a loan. Based on a review of her situation, she decided that her best option is to file a consumer proposal, where she will offer her creditors approximately a third of the full amount owing, to be paid over the next four years (the amount offered varies based on your income and financial situation). With a consumer proposal Jane will no longer have any credit cards, and her credit score is damaged, but she will have a manageable monthly payment, and in four years (or less) she will be out of debt. For Jane, it’s the correct solution.

Is it the correct solution for the credit card company? It could be argued that they would be better off had they not raised her interest rate; she would have continued to muddle along, and they make have collected more money over the next few years. However, they decided that they wanted to reduce their risk, so Jane responded by filing a consumer proposal.

If you want to be proactive and deal with your credit card debt before your credit card company raises your rates, check out our free, interactive debt options calculator that tells you what it will cost to deal with your debts. The sooner you take action, the sooner you will be free of high credit card interest rates.