Debt Management
Why strangers hug Gail Vaz-Oxlade

Jana Schilder

Average time between hugs: 30 minutes. I heard about this, but was properly sceptical. Turns out to be true.

Complete strangers really do want to hug money maven Gail Vaz-Oxlade—and have their photos taken with her. The first was Sarah Fisher, 18, a voice and music school student. The second was Greg Calleri, 23, a business management student at Seneca College and Starbuck’s store manager trainee in Don Mills.

Vaz-Oxlade has two shows on the Slice Network, Til Debt Do Us Part, now in its ninth season, and a new show, Princess, where she cuts off credit cards that are paid for by “The Bank of Dad” and puts young women on a cash diet, encouraging them to take responsibility for their financial futures.

“Oh! My mom will be so excited to see a picture of me with you,” Calleri told Vaz-Oxlade, a fan of Til Debt Do Us Part.

When was the last time you hugged any financial advisor? Exactly.

The first reason that people want to hug Ms. Vaz-Oxlade is that she gives you the straight financial goods—no icing or sprinkles. The second reason is that she tells you stuff your own mom forgot.

Sarah Fisher, a voice and music student, can't resist hugging Gail Vaz-Oxlade.

Q:  Canadians have the worst debt-to-income ratio among 20 OECD countries. Canadians owe $1.48 for every dollar that they earn. Canadians have had warnings about high levels of consumer debt from the Bank of Canada Governor as well as RBC and TD.  Pretty hard to save for retirement when you’re still in debt.

So, is the “change message” getting through to Canadians?

A:  I know my message is getting through. I have been writing on personal finance for 15 years. I reached more people with six hours of my TV show than I had with all my writing.

You can always reach the people who are interested in budgeting, finance, and personal investing. Those are the people who are interested. But they are not the people with the debt problems!

Q:  So, if people don’t want to read, or don’t make the time to read, is TV a better medium to reach them with the change message?

A:  That’s just one part of it. The other major difference is that my shows put it in context of either the couples I’m working with or the Princesses I’m trying to reform. Real life is the context. People can relate to the real lives of others. They see themselves in the TV shows. They are intrigued and they learn from the shows.

Check out Gail's two books in Resources and Tools here.

Gail Vaz-Oxlade and Greg Calleri, a Starbucks store manager trainee.

Q:  In the movie “Matchstick Men,” Nicolas Cage’s character says that for many people, “Money is like a foreign film, with no sub-titles.” Do Canadians understand how money works?

A:  [laughs and nods madly] It’s the people who don’t understand how money works that need the help. And that’s why they purposefully avoid all communication about money.

For me, the whole commission that was struck to discover what was necessary for Canadians’ financial literacy was a joke. I attended one of their sessions and I left thinking:  ‘You totally missed the mark, guys.’ 

They didn’t solve the most important question, which is how to deliver the message so that it reaches the intended audience, so people ‘get it.’

Q:  Is increasing Canadians’ financial literacy a good goal?

A:  I want everyone to take personal responsibility for their own financial literacy. We all work so hard for our money. When people say that ‘I don’t understand money’ or ‘I can’t do math’ they are giving me excuses!

Gail’s tips for "finding" money

Don’t have any saving—for retirement or an emergency cushion—and don’t know where to start?  Here are ways to “find” money: 

Get started. Use an envelope, a coffee can, or a jam jar. Pick an amount $1, $2, or $10 and save systematically. Never count it. Never spend it. Never tell anyone where it is. You should save about 10 per cent of your income, but just start.

Use a change jar. You get about 50 cents back from a cash transaction;  most people make 15 to 20 cash transactions a week, giving you $7.50 to $10, so put it in your savings jar.

Live on your pre-raise income. If you get a raise or cost-of-living increase, save that. You got along without it before.

Tax your spending. If you like fries or lattes, drop $1 in a container you keep in the car. This is now your  ‘Fast Food Tax.’

Save your ‘savings.’ If you get a deal on something—shoes, soup, or shampoo—save the difference in your savings jar.