Canadian Financial Diaries

A growing number of Canadians today find themselves financially vulnerable and struggling with household finances, even in a relatively strong economy. With rising inequality and unstable earnings, many households now face realities that are more complex than ever before. A vulnerable household is a low-income and low-asset household that is unable (or close to unable) to meet its basic needs, particularly in the event of a financial downfall such as job loss or unexpected health expense. Modest middle-income households with a high debt load are also at risk of becoming financially vulnerable, for example when relying on a sub-prime lender such as a payday lender. This research project will investigate causes of financial vulnerability and examine the effectiveness of different responses to it.

Financial empowerment is an emerging response to impoverishment and financialization. It seeks to expand the capacity of vulnerable people through education, training, asset-building, improved access to safe banking and credit services. It is a movement by people from a number of sectors including civil society, the state, and elements of the business community.

This research project seeks to understand the problem of financial disempowerment and examine a variety of practical and policy actions being taken to foster financial empowerment. The research will be undertaken through a capability lens (Sen 1999; Nussbaum 2006) and will use the financial diaries methodology (Daryl Collins et al., 2009).

An emerging response to this vulnerability is “financial empowerment.” By this we mean enhancing the individual and collective capacity to identify financial interests and goals and then to achieve them. Coming up with the right tools – practices, policies, and interventions – with which to empower vulnerable households, however, requires better data about low- and middle-income vulnerable households. Using an innovative version of the Financial Diaries methodology, combined with the regulator and practitioner research components, this project will provide in-depth data and analysis to regulators and practitioners, and foster dialogue between these groups.

Summary of proposal


  1. Use the Financial Diaries method to understand the financial dynamics of vulnerable Canadians in a rapidly changing socio-economic context. This includes understanding the barriers and opportunities that they face in trying to improve their financial and overall well-being.
  2. Adapt the Financial Diaries research methodology to include quantitative and qualitative components, use a burst design, and gather insights on how different educational interventions affect participants. The methods and data will be made available to other researchers.
  3. Through the Diaries, and drawing on research with regulators and practitioners, identify strengths and weaknesses of existing financial products, financially-oriented programs and policies with respect to financial vulnerability and empowerment; from this, recommend new financial products, financially-oriented programs and policies, and re-design existing ones.
  4. Design a phone/tablet application, and/or curriculum in another format that can be used by vulnerable Canadians to boost their financial capability and outcomes.