Some 22 years after writing The Wealthy Barber, which became easily the bestselling personal finance book in Canadian history, David Chilton has a dire warning in The Wealthy Barber Returns, to be released this fall.
“The worst thing that’s happening to Canadians in the last 20 years has been lines of credit,” said Chilton, speaking at the conference of the Canadian Pension & Benefits Institute. “If I was prime minister, I’d shut them down. It’s unbelievable how people are abusing these things.”
He helped one person establish a schedule to pay off $30,000 in credit-card debt, only to have the person take on a $150,000 line of credit from a banker, “because the man was so nice and said I needed it.” The banker’s explanation: “It’s my job.”
Chilton’s summation: “That’s the problem. It’s a lot of people’s job to get Canadians to take on debt.
“Our financial institutions, when I was young, were credit providers. Now they’re credit pushers, and they are very aggressively hoisting as much debt onto the Canadian public as they possibly can. The public is taking it in, and it is not a good situation.”
Chilton graduated from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., and became a stockbroker. He realized financial education was his calling, and set out to write a book called The Ultimate Guide to Losing Money. Then while watching the TV show Cheers, he changed the book to The Wealthy Bartender, “but by the time I got to retirement savings plans, everybody was hammered. I had guys picking up girls.”
Eventually he did what he advises everyone never to do: He cashed in his registered retirement savings plan. The money was used to self-publish The Wealthy Barber, which held as one of its tenets “pay yourself first,” 10 per cent of your income. The book sold more than two million copies, and led to a U.S. edition and a PBS TV show.
In his followup book, The Wealthy Barber Returns, the message will shift from saving to not spending.
“When I told Canadians to ‘pay themselves first,’ that was three-quarters of the battle; I didn’t care what they did with the rest of their money.
“One thing we’re seeing that we never saw 20 years ago is that all sorts of people who built up their RRSP through ‘pay yourself first,’ have simultaneously built up their credit line through the back end and their net worth has changed modestly if at all.
“People cannot resist lines of credit. And the worst combination in the country is a line of credit and a home renovation — once they renovate one room, the other rooms pale by comparison, so they go on to the next room and it’s a never-ending cycle of renovation as they get deeper and deeper and deeper in debt. The four most expensive words in the English language are ‘while we’re at it.’ And the four most expensive letters are ‘HGTV.’
“We go through a credit crisis brought on by too much private debt in the developed world, particularly in the States, and our response — the Home Renovation Tax Credit. That’s like starting an alcoholic’s rehab by taking him on a pub crawl. The problem with governments is they want to get re-elected.”
“The economy needs to be strong as measured by GDP, and GDP is made up primarily of spending. Government is never going to try to get us away from spending during slow times, through artificially low interest rates and by subsidizing debt. The raison-d’etre of banks is to lend. We are borrowing too much money.”
Chilton says public and private debt in the developed world is “shocking,” and dealing with it through inflation or formal default restructuring is “going to lead to slower economic growth over the next X number of years.”
He also sees an erosion of the middle class in retirement.
“Right now a lot of people 75 or 80 have too much money; they’ve done an excellent job of saving throughout their entire lives, and they had defined-benefit pension plans to boot. It’s so tough to give away money you’ve spent your whole life saving.”
But personal and government debt will cause a new generation of people to run out of money as they live longer in retirement. “Even with pension plans, counting on historic returns is a very shaky move.”
Some people saving for their children’s education or housing will become cash-poor themselves. “Let the kids scramble on their own. You know how many people are headed to retirement with no money now, it’s crazy.”
Chilton reiterated a few topics from his first book.
“Your metric for housing affordability should be: Can you pay it back, can you save for retirement, and can you pay it back before you retire? I think one of the best things that could happen in Canada is if real estate prices fell.”
With life insurance, he said people who need it tend to be 10 to 15 per cent underinsured, but Canadians as a whole are overinsured.
Another way to reduce expenses is by avoiding active money management fees.
“What matters is whether your professional money manager is smarter than the other professional money managers. When you look at Canadian mutual fund sales, it’s amazing how many of the dollars are flowing into funds that have had good recent two-or three-year numbers; the problem is long-term performance has no proven correlation with future performance, and short-term performance has slightly negative correlation with future performance.”
A key is to develop good financial habits early.