Unfortunately, it can be very easy to slide into debt. Unwise decisions, unaffordable lifestyles and turning a blind eye to financial problems are all reasons debts spiral out of control. Sometimes debt can come unexpectedly when life, as unpredictable as it is, takes a turn for the worst and presents expensive bills. The fact is, we live in a culture where things are costly and borrowing is easy.
When debts begin to spiral out of control, the personal impact can be devastating. People with debt problems often describe feeling utterly powerless, ashamed and scared for the future. The threat of a court summoning or repossession can throw up all sorts of problems with relationships, work performance and even mental health.
But, with time, patience and the right support, unmanageable debt can be tamed.
Whilst debt management services are useful for sorting out the practicalities of debt, not all organisations can offer the emotional support required to tackle personal demons. Debt counselling, on the other hand, not only looks at ways to control spiralling debt, but it also aims to get to the crux of the problem by addressing the underlying causes and any resulting personal issues.
You may be encouraged by your debt counsellor to think about how you got into debt in the first place. Is there anything about yourself or your life you feel you need to change? How can you prevent yourself from repeating your mistakes and how can you plan for a happier, more prosperous future?
Getting into debt
Borrowing money is a standard way for people in the UK to make big life changes, such as buying a house, starting a new business, getting a car, or making necessary repairs to a property. If a person with a steady income takes out a loan to pay for something, they do so knowing they'll be able to pay it off within a certain time-frame.
Controlled debts are often necessary but they never come free. Interest can mount rapidly over time and borrowing too much, failing to stick to a budget plan and borrowing without a safety net are all reasons debts spiral out of control so easily.
Other common reasons people get into debt include:
Addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, food, sex and shopping can all lead to debts spiralling out of control. An addiction develops when a person begins to rely so heavily on a certain substance or activity for pleasure/comfort that they start to lose control. Even if they know it's bad for them, they will find a way to do it so they can recapture that feeling of pleasure and aliveness. Because most addictions cost money, they can quickly lead to serious money problems.
It's common to feel that, in order to be valued or liked by other people, we must have the right clothing, the right cars, the right hair, the right gadgets and so on. Very few of us can truly afford the lives we really want and sometimes, it can be tempting to spend money we don't have so we can kid ourselves for a while.
"You may think ‘I am stressed out due to work issues, family issues or life in general; OK, I’ll buy a new watch and that will make me feel better’. Indeed, you may feel better for a short period, but the problems don’t go away."
- Counsellor Benjamin Isaacs discusses the signs of financial self-sabotage.
Easy credit and persuasive advertising combined with a desire for instant gratification mean huge numbers of people in the UK live beyond their means. In fact, according to R3 (a professional body for Insolvency Practitioners), 11% of the population are forced to go into their overdrafts before the next payday comes around.
Impatience, lack of research and misunderstanding can all lead to bad decisions that result in debt. Some bad decisions include:
- Stocks and shares - Taking bad investment advice, or following a misguided whim could leave you regretting your decision to put your trust in someone else's venture.
- Taking payday loans - Lending companies are infamous for pulling the wool over their customers' eyes. They'll make loans sound quick, cheap and stress-free when really they're designed to get the most money out of debtors in as short a time as possible.
Neglect and avoidance
Not all debt stems from addictions, vices or mistakes. One very common reason for uncontrollable debt is neglect. For many, the very idea of budgeting, keeping receipts and building accounting spreadsheets is enough to make them run for the hills. Some people will use their cards to spend blindly while actively avoiding their bank balances so they don't have to face up to the reality. This can quickly lead to huge bank charges that add up over time and result in serious debt.
Unplanned life changes
We can't always plan for everything that happens in life. Unfortunately, unplanned life changes can cost a lot of money. Some of the most common unplanned life changes which result in debt include:
- Redundancy - Even with a redundancy package and outplacement support, finding yourself suddenly out of work can throw your whole life out of kilter. Trying to adjust to life after losing a job can result in serious financial problems.
- Death - If one earner dies, the rest of the family might struggle to survive on a reduced income.
- Divorce - The cost of divorce proceedings, along with the dividing of two incomes, often results in debt.
- Disaster - Fires, floods, earthquakes, high winds etc. can throw life into complete chaos. During natural disasters, people can find themselves homeless and unable to work, often leading to cataclysmic financial problems.
Worried about debt?
It's easy to become unhappy, stressed and ill when you're worried about debt. Having very little money is hard enough - but actively owing others money you don't have adds a whole new dimension to the stress.
Being in debt can create anxieties such as:
- How am I going to afford to pay my rent/mortgage/bills?
- Will I have to go to court?
- What if I lose my house and personal possessions?
- Will my partner leave me?
- Will my children think I'm a bad parent?
- I will never be able to afford the lifestyle I want - will I always be dissatisfied?
- My debt will never go away. Interest is mounting every day and the only way I can pay it back is by taking out another loan.
- I must be a terrible person - how did I let this happen? My family and friends will be so ashamed of me when they find out.
Debt worries can lead to the breakdown of relationships, problems at work and the development of serious mental health problems, if not dealt with.
Debt and relationships
Money can all-too-often be a deal breaker when it comes to relationships. It may not seem very romantic to sit down and draw up a joint finance plan - i.e. who will pay which bills, who owes who money, who buys which household products etc., but knowing where you both stand financially is essential for a happy relationship.
With money worries come a myriad of feelings that can put a strain on a relationship. Secrecy, dishonesty, guilt, stress and resentment can all take their toll on even the happiest of couples.
Withholding or spending too much money can even be used as a form of control exerted by one partner over another. Communicating clearly, being realistic and compromising fairly is essential for weathering any kind of financial storm.
Debt and mental health
It's widely believed that there is a strong relationship between debt and mental health. Common mental health problems associated with debt include:
Although being in debt can have serious consequences, the stress of worrying about being in debt can be even more serious. The emotions associated with debt can be utterly devastating.
Charlotte shares how debt affected her mental health:
"After bill collectors started contacting me at work, which put my job in jeopardy, and therefore, my source of income, I soon became too scared to answer the phone at all. At home it was even worse, I was too scared to answer the door or open the post. I started putting my post in a bin bag - which I hid in my closet - I couldn’t bear to open those angry letters. The debt filled me with a profound amount of shame, self-hatred and depression."
Happiful explores how to manage money problems through periods of bad mental health.
Debt and suicide
Occasionally, debt can end in real tragedy. Fear of debt collectors, humiliation and imprisonment can drive some debtors to experience suicidal thoughts. The suicide rate in the UK has been on the incline since the recession struck in 2008, particularly among men aged between 35 and 55. A 2013 report by The University of Brighton said these figures could be blamed on irresponsible lending and intimidating debt collection.
Intimidating phone calls and a barrage of letters can leave debtors feeling scared, trapped and humiliated - leading some to feel like the only way out is suicide. If you feel like this, tell someone, go to your GP, or contact Samaritans as soon as you can.
How can debt counselling help?
If you find yourself in big financial trouble, there are three things to keep in mind:
1. There is advice, help and support available to you.
2. With careful planning, patience and time, you will be able to settle your debts - however big they are.
3. No feeling is final. As dark, hopeless and helpless as you feel now, those feelings will fade.
Be wary of some ‘debt counselling organisations’ who charge for handling your debts. There is plenty of free, useful advice available for debt management out there. Debt counselling is an effective method of releasing the stress of financial difficulties.
Debt counselling is designed to help clients:
- Understand how they can rebuild their lives.
- Seek independent sound advice.
- Learn how credit, credit cards and mortgages work.
- Decide on a budget and prioritise debts.
- Contact creditors and let them know about your situation.
- Pay off the debt in affordable amounts, however small they may be.
- Destroy store and credit cards.
- Find ways to earn extra money.
- Avoid loan sharks or 'quick-fix' solutions.
- Find good, impartial information to help make the right choices and avoid losing their home and possessions.
- Learn how to plan and organise a budget. There is plenty of free, useful advice available on this topic. You can find some good resources listed towards the end of this page.
Steps for getting out of debt
Step one - Make a list of all the money you owe and who you owe it to.
Step two - List your debts in order of importance. ‘Priority debts’ are those that could lead to you losing your home, losing services or in some cases being sent to prison. Priority debts might include:
- secured loans
- utility bills
- court fines
- mortgage repayments
- council tax
Step three - Work out a budget for your income and expenses so you can begin to work out what you can afford to repay. There are plenty of self-help packs and online tools you can use to help you.
Step four - Get advice on the different ways to deal with your debts. Free and independent advice is available face-to-face or over the phone.
Step five - Talk to your creditors. Be realistic about what you can afford to repay and don’t assume you’ll be able to pay back more in the future. Follow up these phone calls with a letter confirming what has been agreed to avoid complications in the future.
How to find a debt counsellor
While free advice from one of the links below will give you good advice and get you back on your feet initially, seeing a private counsellor or psychotherapist in the long term will help you to address any mental health issues or long-lasting fears caused by your experience.
You can use our advanced search tool to find a counsellor specialising in helping people with the emotional side of debt.
Simply pop your postcode into the location box, and add ‘debt’ into the keyword box. All counsellor profiles should list the details you need to select a professional right for you. For tips on how to get the most out of your search, please visit our help page.
What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?
There are no official rules or regulations stipulating what level of training a debt counsellor needs. There are however several accredited courses, qualifications and workshops available to counsellors to improve their knowledge of a particular area. So, for peace of mind, you may wish to check to see if they have had further training in issues surrounding debt.
Another way to assure they have undergone this type of specialist training is to check if they belong to a relevant professional organisation representing debt counsellors.
Many organisations offer free and independent advice to help you deal with your debt problems. Some of these organisations are listed below:
- StepChange Debt Charity
StepChange Debt Charity provides free, debt advice, budgeting help and a free and impartial equity release service. For anonymous debt help visit their online help tool, Debt Remedy.
- Debt Advice Foundation
Debt Advice Foundation, a registered UK charity, operates a free telephone helpline (0808 808 4000) for anyone worried about debt.
- National Debtline
The National Debtline offers free, confidential and independent help over the phone (0800 085 0226) for people in England, Scotland and Wales. You can call their helpline and also download publications from their website.
- Christians Against Poverty
Christians Against Poverty is a national debt counselling charity offering support to anyone in debt across the UK. Contact them on 0800 328 0006.
- Debt Support Trust
Debt Support Trust is a debt advice charity offering telephone or Internet-based debt advice. Contact them on 0800 085 0226.