Your real life guide to getting out of debt
Three years ago, Sarah Baptiste was sitting in hospital with a fractured spine and £10,000 worth of debt preying on her mind. The two weren’t related (she’d fallen and slipped two discs) but 20 years of juggling two jobs, missing rent payments, lending money to partners and spending frivolously had culminated in the lowest point of her life.
‘I’d been fiercely independent from a young age – I never asked anyone for anything,’ the 35-year-old Londoner explains.
Before this moment, Sarah had ‘pretty much’ been living hand to mouth – the accident was a huge turning point.
‘I hadn’t comprehended how serious everything had become. Eight days in hospital gave me a chance to think… and I said to myself: “If you don’t get help, you’re going to keep spiralling down this deep, black hole.”’
Sarah’s story isn’t unique: 3.3 million of us haven’t been able to get out of the red in months, even years. In fact, the average amount owed per adult is £6,372, up 5% from last year, not including mortgages.
Living with personal debt can be draining and emotionally exhausting, but it’s the everyday reality for too many. Which begs the question: why don’t we talk about it more? The ‘stiff-upper lip’ troupe surely shoulders some blame, but there’s an embarrassment evidently brimming just beneath the surface. Yet feelings of shame only exacerbate that private, silent worry. So, how to get out of debt?
The way we treat money is often influenced by the beliefs we’ve developed over the years. ‘If you grew up poor, as an adult you’ll do anything to not replicate those feelings,’ says psychological therapist Emma Kenny. ‘You can develop fearful emotions towards money and not really know how to deal with it – so you end up spending everything.’
For many, money is a way to manage emotions. Catastrophic week at work? Blowing £300 in The Apple Store will fix it! We’ve all been there – it’s filling a void, whether that void is feeling lonely, low self-esteem or wanting to appear successful.
Our society also encourages debt: people are readily given access to credit cards, whether they can afford one or not. As Emma explains: ‘We’re bombarded with marketing that says: “If I have, then I am happy”. That is a very powerful mindset. You get into debt because you want to be, look and feel better. It’s a self-soothing negative cycle.’
ALWAYS SEEING RED
So what’s the cure? If you are constantly dipping into your overdraft, or, worse, permanently living in the red, it’s time to do something.
Financial instability isn’t the reserve of shopaholics blowing thousands in Gucci, it can creep up on anyone. And while it leads to high levels of anxiety, coupled with a constant feeling of dread, you simply need to confront it.
‘People avoid the situation,’ says Emma. ‘They are afraid, so the bills go in the bin. Very sadly, people commit suicide because of debt every day. But instead, try to foster the mindset of “this is not going to kill me”. Money troubles can be dealt with effectively if you ask for help.’
If you can’t keep up with individual payments, Alastair Douglas, CEO of TotallyMoney.com, recommends debt consolidation loans. ‘That way you move all your borrowing on to the one loan. Shop around and find the cheapest possible option available for your circumstances.’
If you’re savvy enough, it hopefully won’t get to this point. There are simple things you can do. First off, get rid of every credit card to stop you reaching for it whenever you get the urge.
Next, start listing all your debts, balances and payments – and work out the total owed. Apps such as Wally and OnTrees, and tools on the Money Advice Service website (essentially the NHS for money), allow you to record your income and expenditure, meaning you can easily spot (and cut) that daily £8 splurge in Pret. Then make a plan. Or, as financial therapist Simonne Gnessen (founder of Brighton’s Wise Monkey Financial Coaching) says, a ‘toward-motivated goal’. In other words, work towards what you want, not away from what you don’t. ‘If you’re keen on fully getting rid of debt, put a date on it,’ she explains.
‘It’s about reframing things – call it a debt card, not a credit card, so you see it as something causing the pain rather than giving you a sense of reward.’
In the long term, debt can actually be beneficial because it teaches you better ways of living. Whether it’s pre-empting your triggers (‘I spend money when I’m bored at the weekends – I’ll join a running club instead’) or making rules (‘items must sit in the Amazon basket for 24 hours’), it’s about identifying patterns of unhelpful behaviour. Only then can you start to deal with the problem.
As for Sarah, she realised her generosity was at the root of her financial difficulties: ‘I was in a relationship with a guy overseas and sent over money for his food and medical fees. The appreciation? Zero.
‘I was in total denial. I’m not a bank people can just withdraw money from. Back then my mental state really wasn’t good. I felt depressed. Anxious. But I did eventually realise I hadn’t gone that far off, it wasn’t over yet. You just need to be strict.’
She now has her own flat, pays £125 a month to a debt management firm and has one year (out of a total of four) left. ‘Out of the madness, something good happened: I took responsibility. And that gave me the confidence to say: “I’ve made stupid mistakes in life, but I can get back up.”’
Set yourself little incentives, such as a treat after repaying a certain amount, so you don’t give up.
Try to reframe your mind into something constructive – hunt down bargains next time you need to make a purchase.
CELEBS WHO TURNED THEIR LIVES AROUND
In 1923, the animator’s studio went bankrupt because he couldn’t cover his overheads. Five years later he debuted a character called Mickey Mouse… and the rest is history.
A decade ago, British comedian Michael McIntyre was £40,000 in debt and using an old microwave as a dinner table. How times change.
In 1996, the American rapper filed for bankruptcy owing more than $13million thanks to a lavish lifestyle and dwindling album sales. Now though? Back up to a cool $1.5million.
The year Larry filed for bankruptcy (he was $350,000 in debt in 1978) would be the very same year he embarked on a decades-long career as one of the most popular talk show hosts in the US.
When the American actress pulled out of Boxing Helena, the studio sued her for $8million in 1993 and months later she filed for bankruptcy. Over 20 films later, she’s now worth $36million.
Read more: Your real life guide to having better conversations