New analysis: one in three adults struggle to access credit – with millions more at risk

Just over one in three UK adults may struggle to access credit from mainstream lenders, according to fresh data from PwC and TotallyMoney, the free credit app – an increase of 50% in just six years. There are also nearly nine million more at risk of falling into this category – meaning half of the population in total, as the cost of living crisis worsens.

The new figures show that 20.2m are ‘financially under-served’ – those who fall between the cracks of high-street lenders due to limited credit history, blemishes on their credit file, or low or volatile incomes, such as those who are self-employed or part of the gig economy. This near-prime group, holding near-prime credit cards with a higher APR, has risen from 13.6 million in 2016, with the pandemic and the cost of living placing additional strain on people’s financial health.

On typically lower gross personal incomes (c. £27,000 p.a.), they have lower savings to call upon, are more likely to feel out of control of their finances, and have seen a deterioration in what they can afford. However, those on higher incomes are now tipping into the ‘financially fragile’ group. A quarter (24%) of those with a gross personal income of up to £59,000 would use credit to pay an unexpected £300 bill in the next 12 months, and 8% would even need to ask family and friends for help. In the same bracket, 17% admitted they have not been able to afford things in the last 12 months that they could afford before.

Alastair Douglas, CEO of TotallyMoney, said: “The findings show the underbelly of a broken market – and it’s too big a problem to ignore. An alarming rise in the under-served group, and millions more treading water, is not just a symptom of the pandemic and the worst cost of living crisis in a generation, it’s also because the credit market is archaic; built to keep data in the hands of companies, not the people it belongs to. It’s then those who are the least cushioned who suffer the most. Not only do they struggle to access the credit they need, but the system shuts them out, leaving them with precious little option but to turn to high-cost, short-term borrowing. When they can borrow, it’s often with a higher APR, which simply adds fuel to the fire.

“The fact is, we need a credit market that serves a new economy; one in which spending habits have changed and where, quite rightly, regulation has bought about the demise of pay day loans which exploited the most vulnerable in our society. The first step to addressing this is cross-industry collaboration: credit reference agencies, lenders and fintechs who can champion financial momentum. Brushing under the carpet is no longer an option.”

Simon Westcott, Strategy& UK Financial Services Lead at PwC UK, said: “There is no doubt that the long tail of the pandemic plus the rising cost of living has put a significant strain on people’s financial health, which has contributed to approximately 20.2 million adults struggling to gain credit from mainstream lenders.

“This plus the fact that this population has grown by 50 percent in the last six years, demonstrates how important it is for the financial services industry to take steps to support the underserved.

“We saw how fundamental the Financial Services industry was during the pandemic, supporting small businesses and providing breathing space for homeowners, and here too there is an opportunity for lenders to enhance existing propositions and deliver new solutions that truly meet the needs of this big and diverse segment of society.”

The growth of the financially under-served

Lasting impact of the pandemic: the data indicates that the pandemic has had a lasting impact on income for a significant group of people. 11 million adults – or 1 in 5 adults – have had their personal income impacted by the pandemic and do not expect it to recover in the next two years. This group is more at risk of entering financial difficulty, particularly those with lower gross personal incomes (31% earn less than £15k p.a.). Since the start of the pandemic, household savings have risen, and outstanding balances of unsecured debt have fallen and are not expected to recover to pre-pandemic levels until beyond 2025. However, this picture at the aggregate level masks the fact that some households have had to run down savings and increased their debt levels since the start of the pandemic.

Increasing cost of living: the data also showed that around three-quarters of adults in the UK are worried about the rising cost of living and 43% have already had to adjust their budget as a result. PwC expects that rising prices could mean that the average UK household would have to pay an extra £2,500 in 2022/23 to buy the same goods and services that it bought in 2021/22.

Growing segment with thin credit files or no credit history: there is a growing group of people that are either not using credit at all or have thin credit files. As a result, this group is less likely to pass creditworthiness assessments based on traditional risk assessments. There is also emerging evidence of some people being less attracted to traditional forms of credit. Our survey indicates there are approximately 11 million adults in the UK that do not hold a credit card and would not consider using one in the future. This is more prevalent among young adults, with 32% of this population aged between 18-34 years old, compared to 22% for those that hold a credit card or would consider using one in future.

This segment does not include the unbanked or sub-prime populations, who are typically better served by alternative credit providers.