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Why your brain is telling you to buy things you can’t really afford

Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto.

JHVEPhoto/Getty Images

My recent column on how low interest rates helped feed this country's household debt binge generated a response from a reader that I would like to share.

James Callon, once a federal Superintendent of Bankruptcy, believes high debt levels are also linked to increasingly sophisticated marketing by companies selling products. "Consumers are suffocated by the inundation of massive advertising in every piece of technology, every social media, every newspaper and magazine and so on," he wrote in an e-mail. His list of the messages being conveyed by this advertising:

  • You work hard, you deserve more.
  • Why wait, reward yourself now.
  • Helping you reach your dreams.

For an illustration of this sort of marketing at its shrewdest, check out the four-level furniture gallery that was opened in a Toronto mall by the U.S. company Restoration Hardware. "After wandering through showrooms of swanky interior inspiration, shoppers can grab an espresso to enjoy on the olive tree-packed rooftop patio, or snack on smoked salmon canapés at the fancy courtyard café from Chicago restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff," Toronto Life reports.

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Mr. Callon directly links retailing finesse like this to our historically high household-debt levels. "What type of outcome would one expect when consumers are tracked, analysed, modeled and then subjected to billions of dollars of intensive and targeted commercial propaganda?" he wrote.

As consumers, we face both needs and wants. Ask yourself how much of the wants were beamed into your brain by companies selling products.

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Rob's personal finance reading list…

The richest Canadians
Canadian Business ranks the wealthiest families and individuals. Also worth a click is the list of highest-paid CEOs. Might be fun to cross-reference this list with share price performance.

Let's get a few things straight about the cost of daycare
Here's a great post by blogger Bridget Casey about how families should look at the considerable cost of daycare. She says daycare is an investment, not an expense. Daycare allows parents to stay in the work force and build their careers. There's research indicating workers can expect to lose up to three to four times their annual salary for each year out of the work force.

Retirement makes you cheap
An interesting look at how the mentality of saving diligently for retirement over decades can make it hard to start dipping into your savings. I've heard a few investment advisers talk about clients who have money but are afraid to spend it.

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How does your family's grocery spending compare?
Here's an estimate that the typical family of four would spend $220 per week. Teenage boys are the biggest factor.

Today's featured financial tool
The website JustCompare.ca covers mortgages, credit cards and personal loans. Just tell them what you're looking for and they'll show you your options. If you try this site, let me know what you think.

Ask Rob
The question:
My wife withdrew $25,000 from her RRSP to fund a condo purchase when she was 61. How will her repayment of this about be affected by having to wind up her RRSP at age 71?

The answer: "Under the federal Home Buyers' Plan, you can borrow up to $25,000 from your RRSP to pay for a first home. You must repay this money to your RRSP, and the default way to do this is to make equal payments over 15 years. In this particular case, repayments would not be completed by the time the RRSP must be converted into a RRIF. What happens then? The Canada Revenue Agency has an answer for this question on its website. Basically, this woman can either repay the remaining amount to her RRSP in the year she turns 71, repay part of it or repay none of it. In the latter two cases, the unpaid balance would be included as income on her tax return in future years.

Do you have a question for me? Send it my way. Sorry I can't answer every one personally. Questions and answers are edited for length.

Featured Video
How to gauge the health of your company pension plan.

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About the Author
Personal Finance Columnist

Rob Carrick has been writing about personal finance, business and economics for close to 20 years. He joined The Globe and Mail in late 1996 as an investment reporter and has been personal finance columnist since November 1998. Rob's personal finance columns appear in The Globe on Tuesday and Thursday, and his Portfolio Strategy column for investors appears on Saturday. More

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