Two in five people rationing essentials to keep up with credit repayments

Struggling households borrowed £11bn to cope with the cost of living crisis in 2022 and are cutting back on essentials to keep up with the repayments, according to new polling from StepChange Debt Charity.

The polling, conducted by YouGov, reveals that more than two in five UK adults (43%) are taking action such as rationing day-to-day necessities including energy, food and housing costs, missing essential bills, or relying on help from friends or family in order to keep up with credit repayments, with more than one in three (35%) cutting back on utilities.

This rationing of essentials is just one symptom of the extreme pressures the last three years have had on people’s finances. Since March 2020, the number of people struggling to keep up with household bills and credit commitments has nearly tripled, rising from 7.5 million people to 22 million people. While a slight drop between September 2022 and January 2023 suggests this number has peaked for now, it remains a dangerously high proportion of people.

Number who have recently found it difficult to keep up with bills and credit commitments

  % of UK adults Approx. number of UK adults
March 2020 (see notes to eds) 15% 7.5 million
October 2021 (see notes to eds) 30% 15 million
September 2022 (see notes to eds) 45% 23 million
January 2023 (see notes to eds) 43% 22 million

Meanwhile, nearly one in two people (47%) says their financial situation is less secure compared to the same time last year. Of those who said they now felt less secure in their financial situation, 71% said this was because energy bills had become more expensive, which is particularly worrying given April’s energy price cap rise. Additionally, 69% cited rising everyday costs as a reason for feeling less financially secure, while 58% cited other bills becoming more expensive.

The figures suggest an alarmingly large proportion of the population running out of financial road, raising the prospect of more and more people becoming susceptible to long term problem debt. More than one in three people are showing at least one sign of financial difficulty (see notes to editors), suggesting the effects of long-term borrowing to pay for essentials is crystallising into more entrenched financial difficulty.

With Energy Bills Support Scheme set to be pared back for millions of households in April and cost pressures eroding people’s financial resilience, StepChange has set out a series of challenges to the government, the FCA and other regulators to firstly protect people experiencing financial difficulty.

To help with the rising cost of living, StepChange is calling on the government to reverse its plans to raise the energy price guarantee to £3,000 in April and to expedite plans for social tariffs for energy, water and broadband.

To help those cope with mounting debts and credit commitments StepChange is also calling for:

  • The Financial Conduct Authority to strengthen its rules and guidance for firms to break cycles of desperation borrowing and prevent harmful debt spirals (see notes to eds).
  • Ofgem to continue to prevent the installation of new Pre-Payment Meters until it can guarantee suppliers’ practices improve and ensure that those who have built up arrears have a safe and affordable route out of debt.
  • The government should end unaffordable deductions from benefits to repay debts and make the £1 billion Household Support Grant permanent to provide an effective system of local crisis support for households facing financial crisis.

Richard Lane, StepChange Director of External Affairs, said: “We know households experience problem debt because of a prolonged period of not having enough income to meet their basic needs. Sadly, these figures show that this is a reality for a growing number of people who have seen their financial headroom eroded first by the pandemic and now by the cost of living crisis.

“No one should go without essentials to make credit repayments. Struggling borrowers need government, regulators and creditors to step up to ensure the mechanisms are in place both to catch people before they fall into long-term problem debt and to help people already facing severe financial difficulty. With no end in sight to the cost of living crisis, there is no time to lose.”