Brits struggle with cost of living and impact of growing personal debt on wellbeing

published on 27 Feb 2019

Unpaid invoices
  • Young people found most vulnerable to impact of debt
  • Non-profit debt advice service expanding to keep pace

One in three people say they are currently living with debt and the same number admit to feeling more worried about their finances this year than last year, a national survey commissioned by The Salvation Army has found.


The survey of 2,000 people across the UK showed nearly 70 percent reported going over budgets set for holidays, leisure activities and shopping and more than a quarter of people find it harder to afford their bills in January than any other month in the year, with one in four saying they were left in debt in January due to their December spending.

The Salvation Army, which operates an expanding debt advice service, opened almost 70 percent more cases during the second six months of 2018 compared with the first six months of that year. Its service saw its clients’ personal debt grow year-on-year with a nine per cent increase at the end of 2018 compared with 2017.

This comes at a time when national statistics suggest unemployment is down and wages are up, yet more than a third of The Salvation Army’s clients are in work.

The research commissioned by the church and charity highlighted younger people are significantly impacted by debt, with those aged 25-34 almost three times more likely to be in debt in January due to their spending in December. Almost half of 25-34s live with debt (compared with a national average of just over a third); credit card debts (69 percent), payday loans (51 percent) and overdraft (40 percent) being the three most common debts.

In addition, the poll identified that before seeking professional advice, men would be most likely to turn to their banks for help if in debt (43 percent compared to 29 percent of women) while women would be most likely to turn to a family member for help (46 percent compared to 39 percent of men).

However, while debt is playing an increasing role in the lives of Brits, one in three people said they wouldn’t tell their loved ones about being in debt, showing a concerning tendency for people to keep their financial struggles to themselves.

The Salvation Army operates a free not-for-profit debt advice service and is encouraging people to speak out and seek advice to manage their debts instead of turning to further credit or struggling alone.

Lorraine Cook, who heads up the service, says debt can happen to anyone and everyone through job loss, illness, bereavement, relationship breakdowns and other unforeseen changes. She explains:

“We see a variety of people come into our service. Many have experienced delays in Universal Credit which has left them in debt. We also have a large client group who are in work but simply can’t keep up with the cost of living and therefore struggle to meet essential costs such as rent or council tax.

“Debt can affect a person’s ability to make choices, impact their relationships, as well as their physical and mental wellbeing.”

When asked about how debt was impacting their relationships and enjoyment of life, on a scale of 1 meaning very bad to 5 meaning very good, the average response from Salvation Army’s clients in their first appointment was a 1. Three months later the average response was a 4.

Of those polled who had experienced debt, 47 percent said their ability to pay bills or buy essentials was impacted, 54 percent said their wellbeing and mental health was impacted, and 40 percent said their relationships were affected.

Lorraine says the aim of The Salvation Army’s debt advice service is to support people to manage debt and the impact of it. “We help people get a handle on what they owe and work alongside them to make a realistic plan to help them become debt free.

“Our free debt advice service can contact creditors on a person’s behalf to explore and negotiate options like repayment holidays and more realistic repayment plans.

“We also support people through the repayment process through regular reviews and ad hoc advice when needed. Ultimately, we aim to ensure people do not find themselves in debt again in future.”

Lorraine says free debt advice services are life-changing for the people that they support, however the services, staff and volunteers that allow them to operate are under increasing pressure and demand.

She says: “We are limited to the number of new cases we can take on because of the resources we have, but we hope to continue to provide this life-changing service in as many locations as possible.

“What I would say to people is, ‘don’t bury your head in the sand’. There is help available to help manage debt and help you budget. You don’t have to go through this alone”.

The Salvation Army’s debt advice services are funded through the generosity of donations from the public and organisations. The centres are run by paid employees as well as volunteers. The service is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and all staff and volunteers are trained to meet regulatory requirements.


Additional information:

The Salvation Army’s debt advice service supports hundreds of people each year. In the last ten months of 2018, the service helped prevent eviction in 21 cases, prevented court action in 14 cases, agreed reduced payments to creditors in 183 cases, and offered additional support through food parcels in 60 cases.

The current value of debt the charity is supporting its clients to manage comes to a combined total of £3,585,478 – an average of £8,039 per client.

The main reasons for clients finding themselves in debt were recorded as low income, long-term illness, over commitment and reduced income.

The Salvation Army currently operates its debt advice service in 15 locations across the UK, with three more set to open.

Find a Salvation Army debt advice centre.


Other recommended debt advice support services include Community Money Advice, Citizen’s Advice, StepChange Debt Charity, National Debtline and Christians Against Poverty.


Katy Jones’s* story: (*not her real name)

I was referred by Citizens Advice to The Salvation Army’s debt advice service. I was told to bring along my bills to my first appointment. I turned up with a massive carrier bag overflowing with bills and that wasn’t even everything. The level of post I used to receive was huge.  Letters came through the door every day and the phone calls were constant. I couldn’t escape from it. I used to get calls at all times of the day and night from creditors demanding money, or companies I already owed money to offering to change my deal with them which sometimes just created more debt.

I had nowhere to turn and no one to ask. I have no family and no friends I could ask. It was so overwhelming. I own my own house so I really was worried because when I arrived at The Salvation Army I hadn’t been able to pay my mortgage for a few months.

My first appointment with The Salvation Army’s debt advice service was in November 2017 and that Christmas I only had two eggs in my kitchen and no money to feed my dogs. The Salvation Army provided me with an emergency food parcel because I didn’t have anything.

My debt started to mount about seven years ago when I gave up work briefly to look after my mother who was ill at the time. She was diagnosed with cancer and died shortly afterwards. As I had no money coming in at the time I used catalogues to buy what I needed. The interest started to mount and I started to lose control of it all.

I returned to work as a cleaner but I wasn’t able to keep up the payments so the interest I owed started to sky rocket. By the time I arrived at The Salvation Army I owed £12,000 to catalogues and a lot of that was interest. Thankfully the service was able to stop the interest from increasing which was such a relief.

I am in my late 60s but need to keep working to pay off my mortgage. It is hard physical work cleaning offices and shops but I’m happy to do it as I need to. I don’t drive and instead cycle everywhere. At one point I was worried that if I fell off my bike or injured myself and couldn’t work I’d lose my house. I am determined to keep working to pay off my debt.

My initial appointment took a few hours. I hadn’t been able to face opening some of the letters which had been landing on my door matt. I gave staff authority to speak to my creditors and soon things were under control.

Staff were so helpful and kind – very welcoming. There wasn’t any judgement. The advice I received was wonderful and just what I needed. The TV package I had was costing me £80 a month and, I found out that I was paying for lots of things I didn’t even need such as sports TV that I never watch. My monthly direct debit is now half the price.

All my outgoings are manageable and I can afford to live. My dogs and birds are what make me happy as I don’t have any family. They keep me company.  Now I don’t need to worry that I won’t be able to feed them which is wonderful.

I think the best thing is that my creditors can’t hassle me anymore. I don’t now have a landline and instead have a pay as you mobile phone – no one has that number. Most letters now go to the debt advice service which helps me a lot.

I came to the service today and all I had was three letters – a big difference from my first visit.

I’m very positive for the future and know I can pay off my debt. Getting help is hard but, the sooner you get it the better. I really feel like The Salvation Army’s debt service has changed my life.


Research methodology available upon request