Neither recession, global uncertainty nor growing joblessness appears to have stayed Canadians' appetite for spending money they don't have.
A new report by the Certified General Accountants Association of Canada shows that household debt in the country kept rising through the recession and peaked in December at $1.41 trillion.
That's $41,740 on average per Canadian, or debt to income ratio of 144 per cent that is the worst among 20 advanced countries in the OECD.
"This report is another indication of Canadians' readiness to consume today and pay later," says association president Anthony Ariganello.
"The concern is do they understand the full cost of paying later?"
The Bank of Canada has also voiced similar concerns, with governor Mark Carney having repeatedly advised Canadians to ensure they will be able to meet their mortgage commitments once rates increase. Ottawa has put that cautionary principle into effect by stiffening the means test chartered banks must apply when issuing open-ended mortgages.
Most Canadians don't yet share that concern. The accountants' survey found that almost 60 per cent of Canadians whose debt had increased still felt they could manage it or take on more obligations.
But the accountants say many households could find themselves in difficulty when interest rates, as expected, begin to rise.
The report estimates that even a small two per cent increase in rates would mean that mid-income and higher income households would have to cut their outlays on non-essentials by between nine and 11 per cent.
The finding is similar to one reached by the Canadian Association of Accredited Mortgage Professionals in a survey results release Monday.
The survey showed that while Canadians appeared well positioned to absorb higher rates, there would be a significant number that would come under stress. The mortgage professionals estimated that 475,000 households would be challenged if mortgages rates rose to 5.25 per cent, and that 375,000 were already facing pressure paying their bills.
The most likely outcome for a debt squeeze is that households will stop spending on non-essentials, and that could ripple in a general slowing of economic growth.
Household spending, particularly in the housing sector, was a mainstay of the economy during the recession. But as interest rates grow, a bigger percentage of household income may need to be diverting into paying off debt, meaning less cash for other purchases, like autos, appliances, furniture and clothes.
BMO Capital Markets economist Sal Guatieri says that is the flip-side to the Bank of Canada's decision to slash rates to historic lows during the recession.
"That's why we did not experience a great recession," he noted. "That was the intention all along of the Bank of Canada, to get people borrow and spend. The problem is if that continued, Canada eventually would have a debt problem."
But that is why the central bank is preparing to reverse course and start increasing the cost of borrowing, he added.
Most analysts believe Carney will start moving on rates on June 1 with a small quarter-point hike.