StepChange clients explain in their own words what being in debt in the pandemic feels like

Today StepChange publishes a report on clients advised by the charity between April and October, revealing striking levels of hardship, and some notable new trends in the wake of coronavirus. From falling behind on rent to going without food, from borrowing to get by to experiencing poor mental health, StepChange clients’ first-hand experiences bring home the reality of what being in debt during the pandemic is really like, and why more help is needed. StepChange Debt Charity has already highlighted how 2.5 million people are facing a financial crisis, with around £10 billion of accumulated debt and arrears as a result of Covid.

StepChange Debt Charity External Affairs Director Richard Lane says: “Hearing the testimony of people who are suffering right now as a result of their debt burden is tough but vital for policymakers. What is particularly shocking about Covid debt is how quickly the impact of Covid kicked in and resulted in financial stresses, how payment deferrals have helped but also postponed the problems, and how much further there is to go before it ends.

“StepChange clients bear witness to how vulnerable we are as a nation to the risk of personal debt, and the harm of its consequences. They provide an important level of insight into debt during the pandemic, based on real life experience, and show why ongoing help is going to be needed if people are to escape long term debt problems arising from the period of the pandemic.”

Rent and council tax arrears

The proportion of new clients with rent or council tax arrears has risen notably since the start of the pandemic. The proportion of clients with council tax arrears rose from 20% in April to 29% in October; the proportion of clients with rent arrears rose from 17% in April to 20% in October. There is also an increase in the proportion of clients in arrears on utility bills.

Fewer clients in employment

Among telephone clients, compared to 2019 when a majority of clients were in employment, only 44% of clients who turned to StepChange between April and October were employed. 46% of clients in the survey who reported that their income had fallen since March said they had been made unemployed or redundant, with a further 26% saying they had been furloughed.

“I was furloughed with full pay for 2 months, then furloughed for 2 months at 80% pay, then made redundant…I have now been left unable to pay my monthly bills, that I was comfortably able to pay before.”

More clients relying on Universal Credit

In April, 34% of telephone clients were claiming Universal Credit. By October, the proportion had risen to 44%. Many clients in the survey who had claimed Universal Credit since the pandemic, while grateful for the support, reported how huge the gap was between Universal Credit and their outgoings.

“I hate being on universal credit… the payment is woeful and does not enable me to pay everything I need to.”

“Great that I am getting £409 a month coming in. But my outgoings a month are £1100 and I was used to bringing home £1600 from my job for past 7 years.”

London rises from fifth to first in the regional list of client locations

Another notable change is that London now tops the regional list of the location of StepChange telephone clients, having been fifth last year. The London area accounted for one in five telephone clients during April to October, and around 1 in 147 people in London sought advice from StepChange in that 7-month period alone.

What are StepChange clients experiencing?

Clients’ responses to the survey reveal how harsh the experiences of the pandemic period have been for many. Over half of clients said they had seen their income fall since March, while 35% have seen their expenditure increase. 16% have experienced both a fall in income and rise in expenditure.

“Covid-19 has crippled us financially; it’s been extremely difficult. If it wasn’t for Rashford’s help, I would have found it hard to feed [my kids].”

“My situation was already getting bad since the end of last year, they started cutting hours. When the covid arrived, my salary fell by half, I couldn’t pay my rent and bills, and I started using the bank’s card limit and overdraft, and it became a snowball.”

Borrowing to make ends meet

Almost two thirds of clients in the survey – and 70% of those who had experienced an income loss – had borrowed to make ends meet. Most commonly, people borrowed from family or friends, closely followed by using their credit card or overdraft. Advances on Universal Credit were the next most common form of borrowing, followed by a range of other types.

“I had no income for a month, I haven’t been able to buy anything without borrowing from friends/family, who are also struggling.”

Extreme hardship

Around 46% of clients in the survey had experienced at least one material deprivation indicator, such as going without meals, going without basic toiletries, not having clothing appropriate for the weather, or rationing basic utilities.

“Some days I was lucky to eat once a day.”

The mental health impact

Two thirds of clients in the survey reported suffering from anxiety, and 62% from depression.

“I have been unable to pay my bills and debts, it has caused my anxiety and depression to spiral.”

What next?

StepChange Debt Charity is calling on the Government, regulators and creditors to recognise the long-term nature of the interventions that will be needed to help individuals, as well as the wider economy, to recover from the debt legacy of the pandemic. The temporary, emergency measures have been extremely helpful, but now it is time to build a longer-term strategy for getting the nation back to financial health.