The dangers of going into debt

Battling debt can be stressful, says Fiona McCulloch of York Citizens Advice

We need to talk about debt, says Fiona McCulloch of York Citizens Advice

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, “debt” is defined as: “something, especially money, which is due to someone else, or the state of owing something”. Examples: “The company has incurred huge debts; “He got into debt (= borrowed money) after losing his job”.

Doesn’t sound very positive, does it? And most of us would agree, debt is something to be dreaded and anxious about. It is a universally recognized truth with the current cost of living crisis that debt problems in the UK will worsen dramatically over the course of months and possibly even years.

And debt comes with a stigma. We find, more often than not, that when people come to us for help, they have often waited almost too late for effective help and this has had a huge impact on their mental health. Why? Because they are embarrassed.

Here in the UK we have a complicated relationship with debt.

More than any other country in Europe, we are obsessed with owning our own homes. One mortgage provider is even running an ad right now that shows two parents talking over their newborn baby’s heads and saying they can’t imagine having a child in a rented property because they want to “give the ‘example’ to their children.

Whether this notion is ambitious or toxic is up to you to decide, but the fact that it is causing debate shows how confused we are about debt in the UK – because what is a mortgage other than a huge debt to the bank?

Very few of us “own” our homes until we reach middle age. And guess what? At this point, we are encouraged to enter into equity release programs (more debt) to “help children get on the property ladder” among other things!

Another confusing thing about debt is that people have to have a certain amount of it to have ‘good credit’ – another British obsession these days. Unless you can prove that you have debt and that you have managed it well, your credit score will be lower. Even getting something as simple as a mobile phone contract can be difficult without being able to demonstrate that you have had and managed debt.

So why is the stigma still there? A TUC report showed that the pandemic is “consolidating existing inequalities”.

The TUC says: “The debt levels of some households are rising. Although the household savings rate is significantly higher than it was before the pandemic, one in five workers (21%) told us that they had seen their level of debt increase since the start of the pandemic. This was particularly prevalent among low paid workers, furlough workers, people on benefits, people with disabilities and BAME people. “

By contrast, the Bank of England report says: “There is little evidence that – so far at least – household indebtedness has amplified the Covid recession. This likely reflects the particular nature of the crisis and the unprecedented policy interventions – such as income support and payment deferrals – which have supported household finances. But they then cautioned that with “But household debt could still play a bigger role in the Covid crisis.”

So is this the cause of the stigma? We view “problem debt” as something that happens to already disadvantaged people, while “ambitious debt,” like mortgages and credit cards, is something the best and responsible parents should have.

If so, we urgently need to reevaluate our attitudes about debt and talk about it more openly. It is still a taboo subject and we must break this taboo and seek advice and support when needed.

Debt problems can happen to anyone, at any time after a single life changing event. “Problematic” debt is everywhere, even if you can afford it, do you want to pay 49% interest on a store card?

How should we do this? Let’s start the conversation here in York, let’s be open about mortgage stress (remember that word literally means death pledge!). Let’s talk about the debts that worry us and why we have debts. Let’s be really open about credit card debt and the interest rates involved, and most importantly, encourage each other to seek help when we think we have a debt problem.

York residents can get an appointment with the York Citizens Advice team to discuss their concerns by calling our advice line on 0808 278 7895 or completing an online form by following this link – /callback-request/

Please don’t worry alone. Talking to friends, family or ourselves can help. All conversations with Citizens Advice are confidential, non-judgmental, impartial and free. We are a charity that relies on donations to continue operating this service. If you want to help us, go to