'Drowning' in debt as personal borrowing tops £180bn

By Rebecca Wearn
Business reporter, BBC News

Media caption,
'I felt like I was drowning'

Personal debt in Britain has topped £180bn according to research, more than the annual budget for the NHS.

Last November the amount of money borrowed saw the biggest monthly increase since the financial crisis.

The research, conducted for BBC News by Experian and debt charity StepChange, looks at personal loans, credit and store cards. It does not include mortgages.

Borrowing can bridge a gap when people are hit by unforeseen expense.

But researchers warn that it can quickly become a problem regardless of how much people earn and where they live.

The research analysed where people have sought advice or help for debt in Britain - and looked at 750,000 calls to StepChange over the past five years.

Topping the list for debt worries is the London Borough of Newham, followed by Barking and Dagenham, Manchester, Sandwell in the West Midlands and Hull.

StepChange says that debt is not necessarily connected to where you live - it can hit in cities or villages, and in areas where incomes are high as well as low.

"Half of the people who get in touch with us do so because something bad has happened in their lives," explained Mike O'Connor, chief executive of StepChange. "They lose their job, they get ill, they get divorced. It can hit anybody."

Dan Kiley is from Stafford. He became ill whilst working as a teacher, and had to leave his job.

He felt he'd always been careful with his money, and kept on top of things. But under these new circumstances he was shocked how quickly things spiralled out of control.

"It was after I became ill that I started forgetting about the payments," he said. "It just escalated, I was up to my neck in it. And that was just having a credit card, having a phone and having a car."

Dan got advice, was able to renegotiate his debts , and now has a new job. But that was not before the pressure of debt hit hard.

"I felt like I was drowning, felt trapped," Dan explained. "There was no light coming from anywhere, it was horrendous. And at one point I did go really dark and I did want to end it all."

Dan isn't on his own. Some 1.4 million people have contacted StepChange alone, one of a handful of charities helping Britons with their money. Most of those seeking help are young and in work.

"People are borrowing at their fastest rate in 10 years," added Mr O'Connor. "Whether that becomes a problem will depend on economic growth, are our salaries going to go up? The fear is people are building up a problem for the future."

His biggest piece of advice is to seek help early, before debt feels overwhelming.