Debt: Making the best of it by confronting the worst

WITH each of us owing an average of just under £30,000 according to Credit Action UK, getting on top of personal debt has never been more important – or more difficult – for Scots.

Traditionally, most people would approach their bank manager about a solution, but conquering debt is about more than your bank balance.

Owing large amounts of money can have serious consequences for our mental and physical health.

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Across our centres, the number of patients complaining about debt-related problems has increased, and we’re not alone in seeing this trend. Citizens Advice Scotland reports that more than a quarter of its 2011 clients sought help relating to personal debt. More than half of those admitted it had affected their mental health.

So, how do you tackle debt and depression? The approach has to be both practical and emotional. While each case is individual, the following tips can help anyone attack their debt and get their bank account back on track.

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Start by accepting that there is a problem and seeking help. Debt rarely happens overnight but creeps up on us over time. What was a small, manageable amount eventually becomes uncontrollable.

Look for help from a variety of angles – your bank can advise on managing the financial side, thus making payments easier.

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However, you need to change the behaviours that got you into debt in the first place, so approach friends and family or professional counsellors for guidance. Money and spending aren’t the easiest subjects to talk about, but sharing the worry will help deal with the problem.

Find an easy starting point, such as one credit card that can be paid off fairly quickly. This will give you a feeling of achievement and help you believe that you can overcome your problems, whether they are debt, depression, or both. It also helps ease the way towards dealing with more complex issues.

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The next step is to understand how and when you spend money. Have you ever analysed bank and credit card statements in detail? Most people believe their spending is random, but it often follows a pattern. Some people buy things to make themselves feel or look better. Try to identify the triggers that make you spend money, perhaps by keeping a diary of thoughts, feelings and situations.

While we’re addressing emotions, how do you feel about money? For most of us it is linked to strong emotions. To change our spending habits we may need to examine those and be more sensitive to unconscious beliefs and assumptions.

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By placing a value on the money we earn, for instance, we put a value on ourselves instead of thinking “it’s only money”.

Another great way to re-programme yourself into thinking positively about money is changing the words you use when referring to your finances. Expressions such as “having to cut back” or “going without” do little but make you feel like you are depriving yourself of something as opposed to working towards improving your future and being financially free.

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Once you know your old spending habits, create new ones. Habits can be hard to break at the best of times, but one way to create one is to link it with something that you do as part of your routine. For example, every time you check your e-mail you could also check your bank statement online in order to keep better track of your money

Don’t forget – just like it took a while to accumulate debt, it will take a while to sort it out. However, if you do something about it now, it won’t last forever.

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l Ewan Gillon is a professor of psychology at Glasgow Caledonian University and clinical director of First Psychology Scotland.