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5 ways to fight stigma around debt

A huge number of people accumulate problem debt at some point in their lives. You only need to look at a few of the stats to see just how widespread the problem is:

  • The average credit card debt per household in September 2021 was £2,058.

  • Almost 27 million people in the UK were estimated to have started 2020 with some kind of personal debt, excluding mortgages (this could be money owed on credit cards, bank overdrafts and personal or payday loans).

  • 5.6 million people in the UK have fallen behind on at least one credit obligation.

  • Every 4 minutes 38 seconds someone declares bankruptcy in England and Wales.

Despite it being so common, debt is a heavily stigmatised subject, leaving a lot of people feeling embarrassed and being shamed into silence.

Stigma can be a difficult and slow thing to tackle, so here are some tips on how to help society change the way it views debt.

1. Talk about debt openly

A survey by Lowell Financial found that 82% of people who talk to someone about their debt say that it helped them to feel better about their situation.

You don't have to shout it from the rooftops if you don't want to, but opening up to a friend, a family member, a loved one or a financial professional can help make things feel less overwhelming.

It might also help other people who are struggling with money realise that they are not alone. Clare Seal, creator of the Instagram page @myfrugalyear, wrote "if you can find a few people you can trust, you'll be surprised at how much of a difference it makes to open up, and how relieved they might be as well. I even found out that loads of my friends are in similar situations."

There are also lots of hotlines and charities out there if you don't feel comfortable talking to someone you know, or if you want more guided help:

2. Educate yourself and others

Getting clued up on the realities of being in debt can help combat misinformation and stigma. Reflect on your own experience and listen to others' experiences.

Try to correct inaccuracies and challenge negative attitudes and beliefs.

A common belief, for example, is that people end up in debt because they are bad with money or are bad at maths. In truth, people can find themselves in debt for a huge range of reasons and often through no fault of their own. A common recipe for ending up in debt is an unforeseeable financial shock (such as a car breakdown or job loss) mixed with a low income and low savings.

3. Show compassion

Be kind to those who are in difficult financial situations. Be empathetic when they are struggling, and be encouraging when they are ready to take control of their situation.

Be kind to yourself too.

Don't beat yourself up if there are setbacks and celebrate the efforts you make to get in control, whether it's talking to your lenders, starting a payment plan (however big or small) or choosing to seek free impartial debt advice.

If you are struggling to be kind to yourself, try telling yourself the same thing you would say to a friend in your position.

4. Be conscious of what you say

Words matter, especially when someone is going through a difficult period. Saying something kind can go a long way, while hurtful words can unravel everything in an instant. Money struggles can sometimes be closely linked to mental health struggles, and can be both the cause and the effect.

Many people in debt have additional struggles on top of their financial ones, so be mindful of the complexities of a person's situation. Pay attention to what you're saying and how you're saying it.

If somebody's use of language is upsetting to you, calmly explain to them why their words are problematic.

5. Choose empowerment over shame

Often the hardest thing to do is acknowledging your debt and choosing to do something about it.

Rather than concentrating on the situation you are in, try to focus on doing something about it, whether that means asking for support, reassessing your budget or starting a plan to pay down debt. You'll find you feel more in control and will feel proud for taking steps to get on top of your finances.

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