how to deal with problem debts

Debt Problems

What to do & where to get help, incl coronavirus support

As a result of coronavirus and the subsequent economic fallout, more people are finding themselves struggling with debt. But no debt problems are unsolvable. It might not be easy or quick, but there's always a route. And the earlier you tackle them, the easier they are to deal with.

Debt & Coronavirus

Before you start reading the rest of this guide, if your debts are spiralling and coronavirus is the last straw to your ability to pay them, there is help available. This includes the option to take a payment holiday on various products, such as mortgages and loans. For the full lowdown on how this works, including whether they'll affect your credit report, see our Coronavirus Finance & Bills Help guide.

Alternatively, see Coronavirus Employees' Help for information on the furlough scheme, Coronavirus Self-Employed for self-employed help, or Coronavirus Universal Credit & Benefits to check if you're eligible for support.

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Step 1. Assess how serious your situation is

There are two ways to deal with problem debt. Which one is right for you depends on whether you're in debt crisis or if you just have worrying or large debts (sadly a growing problem because of coronavirus).

What counts as debt crisis depends on who you ask, but a good indication that you might be in one is if you answer yes to either of these two questions:

1. Are you struggling to pay all basic outgoings, eg, mortgage, rent, energy bills and credit card minimums?

2. Are your debts (excluding your mortgage) bigger than a year's after-tax income?

Even if your debts are big, if you can service them, even at the minimum level, you're NOT in debt crisis and a different solution applies, which we cover below.

If you're in debt crisis

First of all, don't panic at the name. We've never yet heard of someone with debts so bad there isn't a path through them. Starting to deal with them will make you feel better and will speed up the process. Even for those in crisis, the nuclear option – bankruptcy – is rare. Even then, there's always hope.

If you're in crisis, the fact you're here and reading about it is a great start. Many people simply close their eyes to reality, which is the worst thing to do. Now you know there's a problem, it may feel worse than before. But the fact you're about to sort it out means in reality, you're better off.

  • First, read the debt help checklist. The debt help checklist below is designed primarily to prevent people from getting into debt crisis, rather than for those already there. Much of the info won't be applicable, but it's worth scanning through for anything relevant. It may allow you to meet your minimum outgoings and thus avoid your crisis snowballing out of control.
  • Then access free one-to-one help available. The reason this guide doesn't cover crisis solutions in detail is simple. There's a range of great, free, non-profit debt counselling agencies that will give you one-to-one help if you're in crisis; and no web guide can come close to that personal service. See the free debt counselling section.

If you've got debt problems but are NOT in a debt crisis

Don't visit a debt counselling agency. Not just because they're heavily oversubscribed – especially during these unprecedented times – and should be left to those in urgent need, but more importantly, the solution they use isn’t for you.

Debt counselling involves negotiating with creditors and even bankruptcy, individual voluntary arrangements (IVAs) or debt relief orders (DROs). These are serious measures, designed for those with limited alternatives, in effect drawing a line and saying "this person is no longer within the system". The result is the debilitation of your credit score and less access to financial and some consumer products. Instead, there are a couple of sources of help:

  • Take time to go through the checklist. The debt help checklist below is designed to take you through every single way to take on your debts, cut the costs, and speedily pay them back. So take some time and go through each to check whether it applies to you.

  • Help and support from those in the same boat. Want help, or want to talk about it? There are many people in the Debt-Free Wannabe forum in a similar boat, all supporting and helping each other reach what they call their "debt-free day" after going through the checklist. This is an amazing resource.

Are you in a debt spiral? 

If you're wondering how bad your debts are, as the old adage says, size isn't everything. What counts is your debt in proportion to your ability to repay.

If your non-mortgage debts (usually credit cards and loans) are more than a year's salary after tax, then they're quite severe. After all, that means you'd need to work more than a year to repay them, even if you had no outgoings.

Yet even if your debt is manageable, if you don't know where it came from, that's a dangerous sign. Now, ask yourself: So how did I build up debts of this size?

"Well I planned for and budgeted, shopped around to get the cheapest borrowing in order to buy a car/conservatory/caravan and now we're repaying it."

Let's compare that answer with:

"Well I'm not sure really, I just used my credit card and the cost built up."

This second answer is the most worrying. It means you are spending more than you earn and using borrowing as a means to fill the gap. If you continue, you'll get in a debt spiral. If this is you, you need to take urgent action. But don't worry, this guide will take you through everything you need to know step by step.

debt spiral

Quick questions

  • Traditional debt help says: "Never borrow your way out of a debt problem." But this ignores the varying cost of different debts.

    The MoneySaving approach is: "Never borrow more to get out of a debt problem."

    If it's possible to borrow more cheaply elsewhere to replace existing borrowing, then this can provide a huge boost, as lower interest rates mean more of your cash goes towards repaying the actual debt rather than just servicing the interest.

    Those with big debts may save £1,000/year in interest by being more savvy with their borrowing.

  • Many people hide their debts from friends and family, or sometimes even themselves (by not opening statements or not adding up their liabilities). If that's you, then it's time to come out of the closet. You can only sort your debts out if you know the scale of them. It may feel better not to know, but in the real world it makes things worse.

    For those hiding debts from a partner, spouse, family or loved ones...

    Seek help, or work out an action plan first, so you're telling them about solutions, not just problems. It's easier to break the news if you can show you're determined to improve.

    It's much easier that way. Remember, if you're prepared to take action, the question isn't "will I ever get through this?" but "when will I be through this?"

  • Debt isn't purely a financial issue. It can be a cause or consequence of external factors such as health, employment, family or housing problems.

    Money worries can break up families, take the roof from over your children's heads, destroy confidence, pile on stress, cause depression and even lead some to take their own lives. If you're feeling depressed then Samaritans is always there to help, either through its website or on the phone number 116 123 (UK and Republic of Ireland).

    For a full guide to handling debts when stressed, working with banks, getting free one-to-one debt counselling, and specific tips for bipolar and depression sufferers, read our free Mental Health & Debt Help PDF booklet.

    If you're worried about your relationship, Relate has lots of useful info. For specific help if you or a friend or family member have been diagnosed with cancer, try the Macmillan support line.

  • There are a number of debt collection agencies, whose job it is to chase down unpaid debts for other companies.

    If receive a phone call or letter asking for money, the onus is on THEM to prove that you DO owe the money and that it's genuine debt. So if the debts aren't yours, don't panic; send a letter to say you're not responsible. National Debtline has a template letter you can use.

    For older debts, the law says you can't be pursued in court for civil issues six years after the event (five in Scotland).

    So for a personal loan, credit/store card or bank account where there's been no contact for six or more years, a lender usually can't get a court action against you. This is increased to 12 years for mortgages/secured loans – but for most tax debts there is no time limit.

    Bear in mind that contact can mean anything, including making a payment, and that restarts the clock. Courts may also extend the time, for example, if lenders have taken reasonable steps to contact you. Some lenders still chase for the money after that period, but only a court can force you to pay.

    If it's happening to you, see the National Debtline factsheet and template letter, or get help before speaking to the creditor.

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Step 2. Sort your debt with our checklist

debt problems checklist

The idea of the checklist is simple: to explore every option and use each one that works for you.

Most link to more detailed guides focusing on those subjects. Once you've found something that works, don't stop. Continue down the list to see if there's anything else that will help.

Some of the suggestions only work for those with a decent credit history and not too severe debts, but it's still worth checking.

Firstly... sort your spending

The following are a few ways to manage your cash and reduce your outgoings that are specifically useful for those with debt problems. If you've time, you can also go through the full Money Makeover guide.

  • Budget and reduce outgoings. If you have debt problems, then doing a budget is central. You have to get a handle on what you spend to future-proof your finances. The big problem with most budgets though, is... they don't work. To help, there's a special free budget planner which counters all the traditional budgeting problems. Also see our Stop Spending guide.

  • Check your benefits. Even though you may not think it, you could be entitled to some state benefits. You can do a quick benefits check-up for free in just 10 minutes.

  • Can you get help with your mortgage? If you're struggling with repayments speak to your lender before you miss a payment. In many cases, your lender should be able to offer you some alternatives – such as switching to interest only. Right now, lenders are also offering mortgage holidays for up to six months – for the full lowdown, read our Coronavirus & Finance guide. And if you've been on universal credit for nine months or more, you can apply for help with the interest on your mortgage payments.
     
  • Reclaim, reclaim, reclaim. For those in debt, it's very likely some of it has been made up of fees and charges, some of which you might be able to reclaim. You may also be able to claim interest and charges on old payday loans or guarantor loans.

    If you've incurred bank or credit card charges for going beyond your limits, you may be able to get the cash back. See our Reclaim Bank Charges guide for more info.

    It's also possible you may be in one of 400,000 homes in the UK paying too much for your council tax. Do you wear a uniform for work? You may be entitled to uniform tax rebates.

Secondly... cut the costs of all your debt

The aim is simple: repay the debt as quickly as possible, while being charged the lowest possible interest rate.

  • Check credit reference files for free. Before you start, it's worth ensuring your ability to get new cheap credit isn't being hampered by duff data on your credit files. This can cause rejections, but worse still, if you keep applying before it's corrected, even once the problem is fixed you can then be rejected because of all the applications. It's possible to check your credit report for free though.
  • Shifts debts to a cheaper credit card. Suitable for: mid to high credit scorers. Used correctly and with discipline, credit cards are the cheapest borrowing possible, especially when shifting debt to new 'balance transfer' offers. It's possible to get long-term balance transfer borrowing on a credit card for 0%. Even if you don't have a great credit score there are still attainable deals. If you've received a letter asking you to pay more on your credit card, see our Persistent Debt guide for specific help.
  • Cut credit card costs without new credit. Suitable for: low-mid to high credit scorers. New credit isn't always necessary to cut credit card costs. Many credit cards allow existing customers to move other debts to them at special rates. Doing this in the correct order can create substantial savings. One MoneySaver told us that by using this technique, he cut his annual interest from £1,400 to £400 a year. See Credit Card Shuffle for full info.
  • Use savings to repay debt. The interest paid on savings is usually far less than interest charged on borrowing, so paying off debts with savings can be a serious boon.

    The reason this tip comes after the main debt switching steps is that you should first try to cut the cost of your debts where you can. Then look at using what savings you have to pay off as much as possible – but focusing on the remaining high interest rate debts.

    Worried about losing your emergency cash fund? That's old-fashioned logic, and we explain why in the guide via the link above.
  • Danger credit card minimum repayments. The amount you repay on cards is also crucial. Minimum repayments are designed to keep you locked in for years. Make only the minimum on a standard high street card with £3,000 on it, and it'll take you 27 years to repay and cost you almost £4,000.

    Yet it's easy to turn this around, even if you can't afford to pay more. If you've received a letter asking you to pay more on your credit card, see our Persistent Debt guide for specific help.
  • Remortgage: Shift debts to a cheap deal. It's worth emphasising that a mortgage is a loan secured on your home. If you can't pay the lender back, the bank can take your house. But it's due to this additional security that it can offer a cheap rate over the long term.

    Cheap deals are available, especially if you've a decent amount of equity in your home. It's worth working HARD to find the best deal for you.
  • An obvious idea is to shift credit card and other loan debts onto your mortgage if it's cheaper. On the surface this looks like a no-brainer. The debt is cheap, and as it's over a long time the amount you pay each month will be lower.

    But it's not quite that simple. Technically you are shifting unsecured debt to secured debt, so there's an increased risk of losing your home if you can't repay. We explain this fully in our Remortgage guide.

    Plus it may increase your life assurance and other associated mortgage costs, and it may not actually be cheaper. Repaying over a longer period means you end up paying more interest, eg, 5% over 20 years is much more expensive than 10% over five years. Affordability checks have also made it more difficult to increase mortgage debt, so this may not be an option for you.

    Don't be totally put off though. If the other routes above haven't worked, it's still worth considering. Do the numbers – especially if you've a flexible mortgage so you can pay off the debts quicker.

Next.... deal with problem debts

If you can't cut the cost of the debts, or if after doing that you're still struggling, it's time to consider some more severe measures.

  • Talk to your lender. It's very important to get on top of debts as soon as possible. Don't default or miss payments. It's always better to let your lender know if you're going to be unable to pay. Of course, preventative measures such as reducing interest, expenditure and being a smart consumer are the best form of action.

    If you've received a letter asking you to pay more on your credit card, have a look at our Persistent Debt guide for specific help.
  • Can you get help from the Government? There are a few ways that could provide you with interest-free borrowing rather than getting any commercial debt.

    Council support schemes: Since April 2013, each local authority has been responsible for providing help to residents struggling with an emergency. This could include you or your family's health being at risk, not being able to afford to buy food, needing help to stay in your own home and coming out of care, hospital or prison.

    Sadly, this is a postcode lottery. Each council can choose whether to offer financial help or not, and who is eligible. For example, some may give furniture or food grants while others may give cash. Contact your council to find out its procedure.

    - Budgeting loans:
     This is a Government scheme providing interest-free loans to those on certain income-based benefits, such as income-based jobseeker's allowance. They can help you pay for essential items for your home or other things that you cannot pay for in a lump sum, such as clothes and furnishings.

    Apply for one via the Jobcentre Plus or via the form on Gov.uk. If you have the means to get money any other way, you won't qualify. You could be lent as much as £812 (if you get child benefit – it's less if you don't), and repayments are dependent on what you can afford to pay.

    Sadly, demand is extremely high at the moment and there isn't a bottomless pot of money. If the Jobcentre Plus decides your circumstances aren't urgent or you're not struggling, you may not get anything. But if you think you qualify and really need the cash, it's definitely worth a shot.

    If you weren't able to get this help, check to see if there are other grants available in the Low Income Grants guide.
  • Is a debt management plan right for you? A debt management plan (DMP) is an agreement between you and your creditors to pay your debts. You make regular payments to a licensed debt management company, the company then shares this money out between your creditors.

    This is one the least serious of the debt solutions options, as it's the only one that doesn't go through the courts. DMPs rely on you having spare cash to repay your creditors, and for them to accept they'll get their money over a longer period than set out in your credit agreement. For full information, see the Debt Solutions guide.
  • Is an IVA or DRO right for you? If you've seen the adverts on TV, you'd be forgiven for thinking that an individual voluntary arrangement (IVA) is the answer to all debt worries. The promise of a scheme that can write off 75-90% of your debt is not to be taken lightly.

    An IVA is a serious financial arrangement and is only suitable for a small number of people. If you are in debt crisis, read our Debt Solutions guide to find out if it could be the right thing for you. It's also worth talking it through with one of the debt counselling agencies listed below.

    If you've got debts of less than £20,000 and do not own a property (or have any other assets totalling over £1,000, such as savings), you could also consider a debt relief order (DRO).

    To get a DRO you need to go via an approved intermediary, such as StepChange Debt Charity or many Citizens Advice bureaux. See their contact details in the free debt counselling section, check out our forum thread, and read up on debt relief orders.

Step 3. Still struggling? Seek free debt help from charities

debt counselling

For those in debt crisis (see debt crisis definition) who are consistently struggling with debts and meeting repayments – a sad consequence of coronavirus for some – free personal help is invaluable. The aim is to find non-profit debt counselling help. In other words, a one-to-one session with someone paid to help you, not to make money out of you. Here are some good options:

Citizens Advice

Citizens Advice
Full debt and consumer advice service. Many bureaux have specialist caseworkers to deal with any type of debt, including repossessions and negotiation with creditors.                                                                              

Update 11 January 2021: Citizens Advice is urging anybody needing help to get in touch as soon as they can. So if you're worried or struggling, call now for help as Citizens Advice is likely to be inundated with enquiries this month. For opening hours, check with your local Citizens Advice branch.

StepChange Debt Charity

StepChange Debt Charity 
A full debt help service is available across the UK. Online support is also available via its debt advice tool where you can create a budget and get a personal action plan with practical next steps.

  • Tel: 0800 138 1111
  • Opening Times: Mon - Fri 8am to 8pm, Sat 8am to 4pm
National Debtline

National Debtline
National Debtline provides free advice and resources to help people deal with their debts. Advice is available over the phone, online and via webchat.

  • Tel: 0808 808 4000
  • Opening Times: Mon - Fri 9am to 8pm, Sat 9.30am to 1pm
National Debtline

Christians Against Poverty
Also specialises in helping those who are struggling emotionally. The religious focus is why they do it, not how they do it.
                                 

  • Tel: 0800 328 006
  • Opening Times: Mon - Thu 9.30am to 5pm, Fri 9.30am to 3.30pm

And the best of the rest...

  • Civil Legal Advice: Legal advice on a small range of issues, including debt where your home is at risk.
  • Debt Advice Foundation: A debt advice and education charity offering one-to-one advice.
  • Debt Support Trust: A not-for-profit UK debt advice charity. Includes an online debt analyser tool.
  • Business Debtline: Provides free advice and resources for both business and personal debts.
  • PayPlan: Free debt advice and solutions. It's a private company, but the advice is free.
  • Make sure to check your local service is not-for-profit or a charity before signing up.
    • Community Money Advice: It has a map showing where you can get face-to-face debt advice – see if there's one in your area. 
    • Money Advice ServiceIts debt advice locator helps you search for a debt advice service near you. 
    • Council: Ask your council if it knows of local advice centres.
  • These counsellors use a variety of techniques, such as:

    Negotiating with creditors to freeze your interest.

    Placing you on a debt management plan (DMP) where they negotiate with your creditors.

    Point you towards an IVA (individual voluntary arrangement), debt relief order or even bankruptcy (not as scary as it sounds) – see the Debt Solutions guide for a full rundown of these options.

    They will certainly show you how to prioritise the most important debts to enable you to keep food on the table and a roof over your head.

    Many people are nervous about going or calling up, but these organisations are not judgmental. They're not there to tell you off, just to help you sort out the problem. Talking to them may help you sleep at night.

    Unfortunately, the counselling services can be oversubscribed. If may take time to get an appointment with them. Meanwhile, use the information on their websites to start to plan.

The wrong people to go to...

Avoid any debt help or loan consolidation companies that advertise on TV or in some newspapers. Their job is to make money out of you, plain and simple.

While in the short term their plans will make your payments lower, in the long run it'll cost you dear. Avoid them. Don't touch them. Don't go near them.

This post from the forum explains it better than we ever could:

My wife and I are on a seven-year plan with StepChange Debt Charity having recently changed from a commercial debt management company after hearing Martin on Radio 2's Jeremy Vine show.

The simple action of swapping to StepChange Debt Charity has shaved over two years off the length of our plan as the money we were paying the management company now goes to our creditors instead!

Of course, that also means a financial saving of nearly eight grand over the term of the original plan's 10-year period.

This includes IVAs and debt-wiping companies. While they sound good, they're only for a few people. If either is for you, the debt counselling agencies should suggest it.

If you've used a debt management provider that's now gone out of business, check the Money Advice Service website for what to do if your debt management plan has stopped.

Debt tools: Free online help

A variety of info and help is available online to help manage your debt problems, so you can check out your options before contacting one of the debt agencies above.

  • You can't even start to sort out your finances unless you've done a detailed budget to understand where your money is going now. To help, first use our specially-designed free Budget Planner. The aim is to show you whether you spend more than you earn, can afford what you currently spend and exactly how much you have left to repay any debts.

    Knowing your genuine monthly outgoings will then feed into the next steps.

  • Debt counsellors don't have special powers, though they are taken a lot more seriously by creditors than individuals acting by themselves. If you want to, it is possible to make your own arrangements to try to freeze interest and make special repayment plans.

    In general, the free help is usually a better idea. However, if you're keen to do it yourself, read the summary guide from Citizens Advice. Working through the techniques by yourself to see what's available is a useful guide, and should help you understand what the debt counsellors will do.

    Here are a few tools to help you:

    • Cashflow. You need to set up an account with this tool via a registered debt agency (such as National Debtline) to check it's right for you, but once you're set up you can use Cashflow to agree a payment plan with your creditors. It includes template letters and a debt adviser will be able to monitor your progress and provide some support. 

    • Debt AnalyserThis quick tool from the Debt Advice Foundation helps you work out how much of your debts you can afford to pay back, eg, priorities like your mortgage or utilities and other creditors. It can then create a statement of affairs and individual creditor letters if you want to write to your lenders. The tool is best used in Excel (once saved to your computer), but there is an Open Office Calc version too. 

    • Debt Remedy. This tool from StepChange Debt Charity helps you decide what action to take about your debts, based on your individual circumstances. It takes about 20 minutes to get through. If at any point you get stuck then, between the hours of 8am and 8pm on weekdays, you can have an online chat with a counsellor.

      The service is completely free and anonymous, so is great if you want to ask a question in complete confidence.

    • My Money Steps. Unless you've got complicated debts (eg, a dispute or court proceedings), if you live in England, Scotland or Wales you can use My Money Steps from National Debtline to find out how to deal with your debts.

      After registering (it only asks for a first name and email, so can be anonymous), you're asked questions about your current situation, including debts, income and expenditure. It takes about 15 minutes. You're then given a personal debt action plan with options on what you can do, including anything urgent. You can come back to it at any time to check or update.

  • If you're going through the scheme alone, you will almost certainly have some questions. There are a number of ways to get expert help while doing this:

    StepChange Debt Charity has several counsellors answering questions in the MSE Forum on any debt issue. You can ask an open question in the discussion thread or send a private question to one of the counsellors. You need to be registered on the forum to ask a question.

    Chat to a counsellor anonymously. By using the Debt Remedy tool, again from StepChange, you can get online help (click on the 'Get Help Now' button to get into the chat function at any time) from 8am to 8pm Monday to Friday.

Become a Debt-Free Wannabe

struggling with debt

One important thing to remember about debt is you're not alone. Among the wider group of MoneySavers, this site has a specific community of people in various level of debt (from bankrupts to limited credit card overspending) all working together and supporting each other to get debt-free.

For support and encouragement, and to post your SOA (statement of affairs) to let others who are in debt and have been through many similar issues to pick through your finances, visit the Debt-Free Wannabe board (though for specific questions about this article itself, click this link).

It's completely free and can be anonymous

While it is necessary to register and pick your user name, only MoneySavingExpert.com itself will have access to your email – and the only reason this is needed is to stop people spamming the site. Rest assured, you will never be contacted or sold anything, and your email will never be passed on.

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