Britain’s personal debt bill now stands at a staggering £1.5trn. But, frighteningly, that unimaginable amount is being shouldered by less than half of us. In fact, according to exclusive figures given to i, just 47 per cent of British adults are in debt.
But even more worrying than that, just a third of them, around 15 per cent of all UK adults, have the biggest debt burden by owing money to five or more organisations.
The figures, which paint a depressing picture of Britain’s money woes, have been put together by insolvency trade body R3, which warns that the fact that the UK’s personal debt is concentrated in such a relatively small group of adults is cause for concern.
Stuart Frith, chair of R3’s personal insolvency committee, says: “The UK’s personal debt burden is eye-watering, but it’s especially worrying to see how unevenly spread this burden is.”
The personal debt picture in the UK is one of extremes, he says. “While it’s encouraging that there are so many people out there that are debt-free – 53 per cent, according to the research – there are still plenty of people with potentially little room for financial manoeuvre.
“It wouldn’t take too much – an interest rate rise, for example – to turn a manageable situation into an unmanageable one.”
That view is backed up by new research from the Debt Resolution Forum, undertaken by independent research co-operative Zero-credit. The DRF said that debt resilience is in decline as UK households become less able to handle debts because of rising living costs. It means they are seeking help at lower levels of debt problems than had previously been the case.
Some three million households live on a financial knife-edge, when just a small drop in income or an extra cost could put them at risk of losing their home, according to analysis of Government data by the University of St Andrews which was published last week by Shelter.
Meanwhile creditors are getting tougher with problem debtors who attempt to sort out their financial difficulties, the DRF warns. “Once borrowers try to enter a debt solution, creditors are increasingly taking this as a signal to demand repayment,” says David Mond, the DRF chairman.
More and more struggling borrowers are complaining of calls or visits at unreasonable hours and of notices of legal action once the borrower has sought advice, with a rise also in complaints about higher interest and other charges being levied at the same time.
The findings come just a few weeks after the shocking disclosures about payday lenders and high street banks using false or misleading solicitors’ letters to harass people in arrears.
In many cases the names of law firms were simply made up or named after members of staff, and the threatening and disturbing letters were actually simply sent by the bank or payday lender.
The R3 research shows that on average British adults have 1.3 debts each. The figure climbs to 1.98 for those aged 25-34 and falls to 0.62 for those aged 65 and over. In fact three quarters of those aged 65 or over say they are debt free; while only two out of five 25-34 year olds say the same.
Outstanding credit card debts – where the full balance is not paid off every month – are Britain’s most common debt. One in five British adults are behind on at least one credit card at the end of the month.
The problems mean personal insolvencies are rising. “The economy may be recovering and the financial crisis long over, but the same can’t be said of the personal debt crisis that’s arisen over the past decade,” Mr Frith warns.
“Formal insolvency routes will offer a way out for some, but reform of our personal insolvency landscape is needed. Without this we will see people stuck in debt and stuck outside the best ways of dealing with their debts.”