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The consumer proposal is probably the least known of the processes to deal with overwhelming debt, but it is the mechanism that has the greatest capacity for good given our current economic environment. Let’s face it, right now the number one biggest risk to the Canadian economy isn’t the high dollar, it isn’t our level of productivity, it isn’t the strength of our largest trading partner – it is the state of our personal finances.

After that bold statement I must insert my disclosure. My name is Barton Goth, I am a licensed Trustee in Bankruptcy and Consumer Proposal Administrator here in Edmonton. So I definitely have a bias. However, this statement is not made based solely on observations made in my daily practice, but based on the current state of our overall economy. Let us review:

• During the 2000s, the average Canadian’s asset growth was less than half the pace of the 1990’s and the growth in debt was twice as rapid (Roger Suave, The Current State of Family Finances 2009)

• In recent years household debt has surged three time faster than income and now stands at a record high of more than $1-trillion (Canada’s Brewing Debt Storm, The Globe and Mail Apr. 16, 2010, by Paul Waldie and Steve Ladurantaye)

• The average Canadian owes about $1.47 for every dollar of disposable income (Certified General Accountants Association of Canada, CIBC Economics, National Bank economics and Statistics Canada)

• For many years, debt was rising about 2.5 percentage points faster per year than income, this gap had widened to 4 to 5 percentage points by 2005 and rising by approximately 9 per cent in 2008. (Defusing Canada’s debt bomb, Globe and Mail Apr. 17, 2010, by Don Drummond, Chief economist, TD Bank Financial Group)

As a result of these alarming trends I think the traditional focus of our finances is going to have to move away from the saving and investment side of things, and toward dealing with the debt that more and more people are becoming burdened by. This is why a consumer proposal currently is one of the most important financial tools available to Canadian families. It is a tool that gives Canadians the ability to regain control of their finances before they are forced to consider a bankruptcy. As a result, I predict that we will continue to see a major increase in the number of proposals filed as people begin to realize the gravity of their financial position and begin to investigate what can been done to resolve these difficulties.

For those of you unfamiliar with consumer proposals, you are not alone. The idea of a consumer proposal is relatively new (first introduced into the Canadian insolvency legislation in 1992), but has provided a way for many Canadians over the years with a middle of the road option that contains many of the advantages associated with a bankruptcy, while avoiding some of the more significant disadvantages. A consumer proposal is especially advantageous for those people who cannot afford to pay their debts in full but have enough money coming in each month that realistically they should not be forced into the filing of a bankruptcy, a reality that an increasing number of Canadians are faced with each day.

The consumer proposal is one of the options available through the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act that provides a court sanctioned way to negotiate a settlement with your unsecured creditors (i.e. credit cards, personal loans, taxes etc.). There are many advantages to filing a consumer proposal. For instance, in a proposal you do not automatically lose any of your assets as you would in a bankruptcy. You are able to have a reduced impact on your credit over the long term than filing bankruptcy, and most importantly, you are able to bring the payments on your existing debt to a manageable level that will fit in your budget. At the same time, because the consumer proposal is a court sanctioned settlement, you only need a majority of your creditors to cooperate with the proposal and you benefit from court protection which mandates that all your unsecured creditors must participate in the proposal and can no longer collect on or charge any interest on these debts.

At a time when the average family is faced with waning savings, growing debt, aggressive lending practices and an uncertain economy, the consumer proposal may prove to be one of the most needed of all financial tools, and one that will assist many families in an effort to regain control of their finances and truly put their house in order.

If your one of the many Canadians who are currently struggling with your finances I have one word of advice, act now and schedule a time to review your finances with a consumer proposal administrator. If you are proactive, rather than reactive, you will be able to catch things early. The earlier you recognize the difficulties you face and the earlier you act, the more likely you will be able to qualify to file a consumer proposals and the quicker you will be able to regain control of your finances.