Wednesday, September 15, 2010

More than Half of Canadians Living Hand-to-Mouth?

According to a recent poll by the Canadian Payroll Association, 59% of 2766 people polled say they would be in financial trouble if their pay were delayed by just one week. It seems that most of us just aren't wired for saving.

It's hard to interpret exactly what this poll reveals. It all comes down to what the respondents interpret “financial trouble” to mean. For some it may mean bankruptcy, but for others it may mean a relatively minor inconvenience.

In my case I wouldn’t say that delaying my pay by a week would cause me real trouble, but if it happened at the right time, it might force me to write a cheque against a different account than I normally would. This is hardly trouble, but it could be a minor inconvenience.

Setting aside the question of how many people really are living hand-to-mouth, I’m not too surprised that many Canadians’ finances are in poor shape. I don't think that our hunter-gatherer history did much to prepare us for dealing with more than a day’s worth of wealth. There was no point in hoarding meat or berries. It would rot or others would steal it.

The idea of wealth that lasts for years is a modern phenomenon. It takes some rational thinking to make decisions about wealth; we're not wired to make these decisions well. Many people tend to focus on today's cash flow and let tomorrow take care of itself. Access to borrowed money can be a disaster for people like this.


  1. Biggest issue I would run into trouble with is all the automatic payments I have set up with on line banking might cause some issues.

  2. @Big Cajun Man: The critical question is how you would have responded to the poll question of whether a week's delay in pay would cause you financial trouble. You might be inclined to answer yes, even though you clearly don't live hand-to-mouth.

  3. I read that study as well and didn't find the number all that surprising. Just look at all of the payday loan offices, many people can't survive until their pay cheque arrives.

    Personally I would find it a huge inconvenience to have my pay delayed, as I only get paid once a month...but I wouldn't say I would be in financial trouble.

  4. @Echo: I agree that there are a great many people with cash-flow problems, but the percentage who use payday loans is (I'm hoping!) much less than 59%. I would be concerned if it was even 5%.

    @CC: I've seen this happens with polls before. If you include being yelled at as abuse, then nearly all children have been abused. But, when you report that almost all children have been abused, people picture a form of abuse that is much more severe than being yelled at.

    1. The second reply above is to Canadian Capitalist's comment:

      I'm puzzled by this survey. 60% sounds like a really large number to be financially stretched due to missing a single paycheque. It is possible like you note that it may be due to differing interpretation of what "financial trouble" means.

  5. I get paid weekly but it would be 2 weeks before I would be in trouble. Simple math. I have some savings but not enough for even a month. I find it very easy to believe people would suffer with missing one weeks pay.

  6. I use my LOC as a chequing account so having my paycheck delayed wont cause me any financial ruin except I would start accumulating interest from the loan.

  7. Great post and point, Michael.

    Beyond the "what is difficulty," I wonder what the respondents felt a "financial obligation" is.

    Person A may consider rent and food as his/her financial obligations, while Person B may also include $100 per week auto-deducted into two RESPs, $200 per week auto deducted into each RRSP and spousal RRSP, as well as 10% into savings.

    I looked at the survey itself, and also found it to be a little skewed by gender and geography. I'm just not confident that it is an accurate representation of your typical Canadian.