Free Consultation

There were three interesting stories in the press this week about pensions and bankruptcy in Canada.

On Wednesday the CBC ran a story on how the Liberals vow to change bankruptcy laws. Here’s a quote from the story:

The Liberal Party says it is committed to changing Canadian bankruptcy laws so former employees of failed companies like Nortel don’t lose their pensions and disability benefits when their employer goes bust.

“You gotta know that I’m hearing you loud and clear — the Bankruptcy Act must be changed,” Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff told Nortel pensioners at a rally on Parliament Hill Wednesday.

Ignatieff said his party will be meeting Monday to discuss new proposals for the pension system. Liberals are committed to changing bankruptcy laws “so that you are not left at the back of queue in insolvency and bankruptcy,” Ignatieff said. “It’s not right; we agree with you.”

The basic point being made by Mr. Ignatieff is that it’s possible for a company to go bankrupt, and as a result workers can lose their pensions. He uses Nortel as an example, a once proud Canadian company that is now bankrupt.

The second story was written by David Olive, in the Toronto Star, and he took the opposite view: Pension Crisis: Not So Fast. He makes the point that Canadians have many sources of retirement income, including company pensions, and the Canada Pension Plan, and RRSPs. Outside experts have determined, in fact, that Canadians have pension protection as good or better than anyone else in the world.

In the third story the Globe and Mail discusses the Illusion of Pension Security in Canada, and makes the point that only 30% of Canadians have employer sponsored defined benefit pensions, so the “pension crisis” is nothing new.

So which view is correct? Should Canada’s bankruptcy laws be changed, or are we on the right track?

Unfortunately for Mr. Ignatieff, changing Canada’s bankruptcy laws is not a practical solution. First, as readers of this weekly column are very well aware, Canada’s bankruptcy laws were amended back in 2005, and 2007, but the final changes did not come into force until September 18, 2009. You can read all about the new rules in our posts on the new bankruptcy rules in Canada. Given the speed the government has worked in the past, if he wanted to make changes, it would be years before any changes were implemented.

Second, changing the bankruptcy laws misses the point. First, if only 30% of Canadians have a pension plan through work, that means most of us don’t have one, so changing rules to protect something we don’t have serves no purpose. In addition, the employee’s pension plan is not an asset of the company. It is a separate fund, entirely for the benefit of the employees. When a company goes bankrupt it’s assets are liquidated, and the proceeds go to the creditors. The pension is not liquidated; it’s not part of the company’s assets.

In simple terms, each pay period the company contributes money to a separate fund, and it is that fund used to fund the employees retirement. The best way to protect an employee’s pension is to protect the fund. The government should enforce rules to ensure that pension plans are adequately funded. If they are, even if the company goes bankrupt, the money will be in a separate fund to continue to pay retirement benefits to the employees.

The answer, then, is not to change bankruptcy laws, but instead to ensure pensions are properly funded. That can be done by enforcing the existing rules.

I’m not opposed to changing bankruptcy rules. Unfortunately, when a company goes bankrupt, there is usually very little money to distribute, so even if the pension plan got whatever money was available, it may not be enough. So, changing the bankruptcy rules would offer little protection to workers. Enforcing existing rules to ensure that pensions are fully funded is a more logical solution.

Even more important, however, is that you must look out for yourself. Every day I meet with people in financial trouble, and I give all of them the same advice: I can show you how a consumer proposal or a personal bankruptcy will deal with your debts, but only you can adjust your spending or increase your income so that you don’t have debt problems in the future.

The same advice applies to your pension. You can rely entirely on your employer, or the government, to take care of you when you retire. Or, you can take some of the responsibility yourself. If you were to start at the age of 35 and put $200 per month in a savings account, you would contribute $72,000 to your savings account by age 65. If you contributed that money to an RRSP, and re-invested your tax refund each year, and if you earned interest on your savings, you could easily have a quarter of a million dollars, or more, by the time you retire. But that’s up to you. You have to decide to save $200 per month; no-one else will do it for you.

I realize that some people simply cannot save $200 per month. Some can save more, some can save less. But when you calculate how much you spend on coffee, or fast food, or smokes, most people can find a few dollars each month to save. (There are lots of great money saving tips on the internet to give you ideas).

But what about you? Should you rely on the government to fund your retirement? No, you should rely on yourself.

The maximum benefit paid by the Canada Pension Plan at age 65 is $908.75 per month. If CPP will be your only source of income when you retire, and if your living expenses are more than $908 per month, you will have a problem.

My advice? Make a decision, right now, to plan for your retirement. Here’s what you should do:

1 Start by making a personal budget. Make a list of what you spend each month, and decide what expenses you can cut to increase your savings.

2 Eliminate your debts. There is no point in putting money in a savings account earning 1% interest if you are paying 20% interest on your outstanding credit card balance. Review your debt management options, and make a plan to start dealing with them. You may be able to deal with your debts on your own, or you may need to file a consumer proposal or personal bankruptcy to get a fresh start. Regardless of the solution, the sooner you start, the sooner you will have a solution to your money problems.

3 Start saving. Once you know what you spend, and you have eliminated your debts, you can start a savings plan. The sooner you start, the more you will save. Set up two bank accounts: one for purchases you need to make within the next year (such as for Christmas, or car repairs), and the other will be long term savings for the future (for your children’s education, or to buy a house, or to fund your retirement).

If you decide that your future is up to you, you can start making positive changes now, and you won’t have to rely on the government changing bankruptcy laws in the future to protect your retirement.