You should not be ashamed of debt

You should not be ashamed of debt

9th June 2021

Ignoring money problems doesnt make them go away

by Myles Fitt, CAS Strategic Lead on Financial Health

This column was first published in the Herald on 9 June 2021.

What are you putting off until tomorrow that you could be doing today? We all do it, putting things off until they loom over us. Maybe it’s those shelves you’re supposed to be putting up, or tidying up the files on your laptop. Or it could be a newspaper column that you’ve known about for weeks but end up writing in the last few hours before the deadline

Sometimes putting things off is relatively harmless, but at other times it can cause real problems – like when you put off dealing with money worries or debt.

Advisers in the Citizens Advice network see this all the time. People have put off the bills, reminders and final notices until the problem because so large, looms over them so much, that it has become overwhelming.

That’s why this month we’re running our ‘Money Advice Matters’ campaign, encouraging people not to delay and instead seek money advice as soon as they think there may be a problem.

We offer free, confidential and impartial advice to anyone who needs it. It may be that coronavirus has kick-started money worries for some or has worsened existing financial issues for others, but a problem shared with one of our money advisers is a problem halved.

Just sitting down and talking to a sympathetic CAB adviser relieves some of the pressure. The adviser will then assess the problem and set out a course of action. For example, if you are worried about threats of debt recovery, a CAB money adviser can help remove these threats, offering you space to take a breath and find a way forward.

Many people feel a sense of stigma around owing money and while that’s completely understandable, it doesn’t have to be this way.

The hardest part of this process is often asking for help, but once you do you find the problem becomes easier because you are getting expert advice from a sympathetic, non-judgemental source.

CAB advisers often talk about how they see some people take a visible sigh of relief once they’ve got their worries off their chest.

We recently conducted a piece of research which asked Scottish CAB clients about money and debt advice. It showed that people who came to the CAB with issues relating to debt, compared to those with other issues, were more likely to say that they wished they had contacted the CAB sooner. Words like ‘relief’, ‘support’, and ‘solutions’ were common descriptions of what it meant to get our advice, and one comment stood out:

“I was a nightmare, sticking my head in the sand about the money I owed and feeling so embarrassed about it. They (the CAB) were very understanding and I was relieved, big time.”

In all, more than half of people who sought debt advice from a Scottish CAB wish they had done so sooner.

Worryingly, our research also found that 17 per cent of clients surveyed believe they will need advice on debt in the future.

We know that the pandemic has been a real struggle for many people financially. Things like furlough and payment support measures have unquestionably helped, but these are due to wind down in the coming months, which means many more people will be facing a moment of huge financial risk.

That’s why it’s so important that those people get advice early – not just from a financial perspective, but from one of emotional wellbeing too.

That’s another thing our advisers regularly hear from their clients: that getting debt advice has helped their mental health, removing stress and meaning they can sleep soundly for the first time in years. This is inspiring for us to hear, knowing that we have given someone their life back and helped them out of a difficult time. Seeing the transformation of someone’s life, not just their finances, is one of the best feelings in the world.

Good money advice gives people the right information to make an informed choice. For example, dispelling common myths such as whether you can be jailed for certain debts or blacklisted on your credit report. The CAB network aims to help you solve your problems by giving you the tools and knowledge to help yourself, so that it is you who is taking control of your situation, and taking those all-important steps to a better outcome.

What we also try to do is ensure that people can get the type of advice they want in a way that suits them. For some people, a trained money adviser guiding them through the process face-to-face or by phone is absolutely the most important thing, but others may prefer to self-help online.

That’s why our public advice site, which had over 2.5 million users last year, has information around money problems and debt. And last year we also launched moneymap.scot, an online tool which signposts people to the best options for making the most of their money, cutting their bills and meeting the costs of daily life.

Some people still find a bit of a stigma around talking about money, especially debt, as if this is something to be ashamed of. That’s a myth that needs to be removed. The majority of clients receiving debt help through CABs are in debt because of insufficient incomes or rising costs – not the harmful stereotype of reckless spending.

Fixing those problems is a larger public policy question we need to tackle after the pandemic, to ensure a decent quality of life for everyone. But while we get there, people should know that the CAB network is here for them, and not put off until tomorrow advice that could change their lives today.