Christmas on credit and new additions to the family fleet of vehicles pushed the average Canadian’s non-mortgage debt to an all-time high last year.

Consumer debt jumped by 6% year-over-year to a new record of $27,485 in the fourth quarter (Q4), ended Dec. 31, 2012, according to Hamilton-based TransUnion LLC‘s quarterly analysis of Canadian credit trends. It’s the biggest year-over-year increase in Q4 since 2009, and the 2.7% rise from the previous quarter is the biggest since 2008.

Although an increase in debt levels around the holidays is not surprising, TransUnion researchers were taken aback by average debt loads increasing by more than $1,500 per consumer.

“For almost two years after the recession, the growth rate [of consumer debt] was dropping consistently, quarter by quarter,” says Thomas Higgins, TransUnion’s vice president of analytics and decision services. “It almost looks like it is starting to ramp back up.”

The $27,485 national figure is the highest per capita debt level since TransUnion started tracking the data in 2004.

Higgins also was surprised by large year-over-year increases in debt in Alberta (up by 11.2%) and Quebec (up by 9.4%), as well as the slight decline in British Columbia, which had long had the highest average debt in the country.

Of the biggest provinces, Ontario ($26,901) and Quebec ($20,102) were below the national average of consumer debt at yearend, while Alberta ($37,377) and B.C. ($37,244) were above it.

Nationally, consumer debt rose in all categories, although auto loans generated the biggest increase as Canadians are lured by low interest rates to buy new cars. Auto-related consumer debt increased by 8.9% year-over-year.

Canadian average credit card debt (the aggregate balance on all credit cards for an individual) rose by 0.12% year-over-year, rising for the first time in more than two years.

Debt on lines of credit jumped by 2.6% year-over-year after two quarters of decline. Instalment-loan debt increased by 6.7%, the largest increase in two years.

But despite higher levels of debt, people continue to pay their bills. “Delinquency levels remain low and, in some cases, are drifting even lower,” says Higgins. “It’s an especially positive sign to see lines of credit, which make up the majority of personal debt when excluding mortgages, experience yearly declines in delinquencies.”

There is a role for financial advisors to play in this, Higgins says: “[You] should focus on what people really owe. Because of the low interest rates, people are focused on ‘How much is it going to cost me a month?’; not on ‘How much debt I’m carrying?’ or the overall interest costs.”

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