Debt is the unwelcome guest this Christmas - Emma Jackson

People are urged to get debt help early.People are urged to get debt help early.
People are urged to get debt help early.
As we prepare for what will undoubtedly be a different Christmas for all of us, in thousands of homes across Scotland, families will be carrying the heavy burden and mental exhaustion of an extra ‘guest’. Problem debt. Taking up a space, eroding confidence and bringing with it a whole host of stresses and strains this festive season.

Furlough, income reduction, job losses have all taken their toll on so many.

The recent collapse of Debenhams and Arcadia, put a further 25,000 jobs at risk on top of the thousands of jobs already hanging by a thread. The number of unemployed over-50s has increased by a third in a year, according to new analysis of data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS). Moreover, almost two in five people are concerned about their income during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) research.

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Uncertainty is everywhere and we are far from feeling the full economic impact of COVID-19.

It’s undeniable those from our poorest communities have been hit hardest. Those with the least financial resilience, with little or no savings to fall back on, no safety net to catch them, are unable to cope with the income shocks that this year has brought.

Missed bills, the creep of rent or council tax arrears, no money to pay everyday bills- this all leads to further borrowing to meet essential living costs. 64% of clients seeking support from Christians Against Poverty (CAP) in Scotland were borrowing money for food or living costs. This is a staggering statistic.

The choice between heating or eating is the brutal reality for families in streets up and down Scotland this Christmas. The Scottish Government reported last week that 311,000 households are in extreme fuel poverty and we know from Trussell trust that 1.2 million food parcels were distributed between April and September this year. We mustn’t gloss over these statistics. That’s families, just like yours and mine, who are cold and hungry with many of them carrying the weight of debt. Perhaps it is your family.

Problem debt, defined as people who say keeping up with their bills and credit commitments is a ‘heavy burden’, or that they have missed payments for bills in three or more of the last six months. It’s a scary and isolating place all too often dominated by shame, fear and relentless pressure. Debt takes root, mentally and physically, just like that unwanted guest, demanding time, energy and a constant draining presence. And unfortunately, shame and embarrassment, allows problem debt to stay much longer than it ever should.

CAP Client, Christina describes her debt as all consuming. ‘I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating, my mental health was really starting to suffer. My mind was constantly thinking how am I going to get through tomorrow…. it was just horrendous.’

The burden of debt is especially oppressive for those already carrying a heavy load; ill health, bereavement, family breakdown or trauma. Mental Health Scotland has already reported on the many people entering the pandemic already struggling with mental ill health. The report suggested that the pandemic has widened mental health inequalities, particularly within groups that have the poorest mental health pre-crisis. The link between debt and mental health is completely intertwined, with 65% of CAP clients reporting debt caused their mental health to deteriorate. The pandemic has not only heightened financial struggles for those already in debt before the crisis hit, but it has pushed so many into problem debt for the first time. The tragic outcomes of the coronavirus have impacted so many of us.

The Money and Pensions Service (MaPs) report that the toll of the coronavirus on some people’s financial wellbeing will be severe and long lasting. Although many have been helped by the furlough scheme and special flexibility on products such as mortgages and loans, there are likely to be challenges ahead when these come to an end. The need for debt advice is expected to increase by 60% over the next 18 months.

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Debt charities across Scotland are urging those struggling with problem debt to seek help now. Free professional advice exists to help people to tackle their debts. Interventions by the Scottish and UK Governments, along with the credit industry have been welcomed to give people more space to manage debt. However, for most people getting expert advice on the right debt solutions at the earliest opportunity is key. An essential first step is to be able to see that options exist, support is available, and you are not alone in dealing with your debt.

There is no shame in needing debt advice.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. Christina, says, ‘Whilst I wouldn’t wish debt on anybody, I can look back at my time with CAP and see the good things that have come out of it – like my new friends. I’ve met a lot of lovely people. I’m better at prioritising my money too. I can actually sleep at night now. I’ve learnt that you’re going to come up against things but you can come through them, it gives you a better perspective.’.

Debt is not exclusive to people of a certain age or of a specific household make-up.

Unexpected circumstances mean that no-one is immune to finding themselves in a financial crisis. If you or someone you know is struggling with problem debt, now is the time to seek help. Debt is not something to be ashamed of.

Don’t delay or put it off, don’t let the unwanted guest continue to rob you of your emotional and physical well-being this Christmas. Call time on this intruder and seek help today.

Emma Jackson is National Director Scotland, Christians Against Poverty (CAP)