Well-educated, well-paid, but mired in debt

A TERTIARY education, average or even above-average income but crushing credit card or other unsecured debt of at least two years' worth of annual pay.

That is the typical profile of an estimated 32,000 people in Singapore who are affected by new rules on unsecured debt - that is, debt with no collateral.

The rules will be phased in over the next four years rather than implemented all at once, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) announced on Monday.

But from June 1 this year, these most heavily indebted of borrowers will be prevented from adding to their loan burden.

Data compiled by financial institutions and the Credit Bureau Singapore show that as of February, 32,000 borrowers had total interest-charging unsecured debts above 24 times their monthly incomes.

Most of these heavily indebted borrowers have tertiary education qualifications - a diploma or higher - with incomes above or around the median income.

Credit Counselling Singapore president Kuo How Nam said that last year, he saw a high-earning borrower with an unsecured debt of $1.8 million.

"We successfully restructured a repayment plan for him and things are all right now."

The 32,000 make up 2 per cent of the total number of unsecured-credit borrowers, but their borrowings pose no risk to the stability of the banking industry.

Including these borrowers, those with total interest-charging unsecured debts of more than 12 times their monthly income made up about 84,000, or 5 per cent, of unsecured borrowers.

These figures are up from those released in October last year, when Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said about 3 per cent of unsecured borrowers have debts exceeding their annual incomes.

Since the new MAS rules were announced in September 2013, financial institutions and credit bureaus have been enhancing their systems to capture more comprehensive and updated data - and 5 per cent is the updated figure.

The revised, graduated timeframe for the new rules will also mean that from June 1, 2017, those with total unsecured debts of more than 18 times their monthly income will be affected.

And from June 1, 2019, those with total unsecured debts of more than 12 times will see the rule kick in.

Once the borrowing limits start, an affected borrower will not be able to charge new purchases to his credit cards or apply for new cards, for instance.

Loans for medical, education or business purposes do not count towards the borrowing limit.

Mr Kuo said besides overspending on lifestyle wants, another major reason for falling in debt is job-related.

"For example, a spouse could have lost a job. Another 20 per cent to 30 per cent make stupid investments, lend money to friends or pump funds into failing businesses."

He added that another 20 per cent to 25 per cent cite gambling as a reason, and that people fall into debt because of multiple reasons, not just one.