Addressing debt and debt stigma in the cost of living crisis

| Rachel Berry

We’re experiencing a cost of living crisis. Martin Lewis, the Money Saving Expert, says the worst time for people financially wasn’t the 2008 financial crash. It wasn’t during COVID. It’s right now.

Food, energy and housing costs continue to rise. Incomes aren’t keeping up with inflation. As prices rise, more people from across society are being tipped into poverty. People working in full time professions, such as teaching, are finding themselves in debt as they struggle to afford rising costs. And with debt come struggles with physical and/or mental ill health, including sleep problems, anxiety and depression.

Help is available for people experiencing debt. But Matt Davison, User Experience Manager at debt management charity StepChange, says the stigma around getting debt advice can lead to people delaying reaching out for help – sometimes for as long as a year – exacerbating the problem. “There’s a bit of a misconception that problem debt is caused by people who mismanage their money,” says Matt, “but more often than not, the reasons behind problem debt are circumstantial. There’s so many things that you wouldn’t be able to foresee that have a massive impact on your financial situation. People go from quite comfortably managing their finances to being in a very tricky position almost overnight.”

For the last 30 years, StepChange has been on a mission to help society become free from problem debt (when a person cannot meet their financial costs and repayments). While the furlough scheme and other financial support meant demand for the charity’s debt management advice and services was lower than usual during the pandemic, there’s been a significant increase recently. “We’re at about pre-pandemic levels now, and expect that to grow,” Matt says. “It’s really being accelerated by the cost of living crisis.”

Tailored services

StepChange services are designed to be adaptable and tailored to the individual’s needs. This is all the more necessary as a large proportion of the charity’s client base experiences a vulnerability, which could include a physical or mental ill health or disability. Clients can choose to work with a debt adviser over the phone, to complete the end-to-end journey online, or to do a combination of the two.

The first step is capturing an overview of the client’s current financial situation, including things like income, debts and creditors. Next, the charity and client work together on identifying priority costs and developing a budget. “We’re trying to understand how much money a client has, after their priority costs, to service their debts,” Matt says. “We look to tailor a budget that’s realistic and sustainable over the long term, so don’t have to scrimp and scrape.”

Next steps

With the budget in place, StepChange debt advisors can then make recommendations for next steps. “It’s down to the client to decide what they think is the best solution for them,” Matt says, “but we aim to move at their pace, tailor our advice and then support them with whatever they decide to do. Some clients come to us knowing what they want to do. Other clients just need a bit of extra help and guidance to be confident that a certain solution is the right one for them.”

As User Experience Manager, Matt’s role is to make sure StepChange’s products and services continue to offer clients the best possible outcomes. He says that their statistical information tells them what’s happening  – what percentage of clients recommended a debt management plan will take it up, for example – but don’t tell them why it’s happening. “We’d look to then speak to some of those clients to really understand their experience and the reasons they chose not to go ahead,” Matt explains. “That helps us understand what needs we’re not fulfilling and how we need to change our client journey.”

A recent example is a project to digitise the previously manual process of submitting information for a debt management plan: “Clients would physically fill in a form to send information back to us, which isn’t very accessible – and quite overwhelming – for a lot of people. Client feedback showed us there was a problem, and user testing helped us validate that moving the process online was the right solution, and helped us design and develop what that would look like as part of our online debt advice service.”

Co-creation in design

StepChange’s debt advisors are a huge asset in developing user-focused services. “Our debt advisors speak to clients for seven or eight hours every single day, so they are great advocates for our clients,” says Matt. “We do lots of co-creation activities with them and involve them in our design process. By having debt advisors at the table with our design team, our clients’ needs are well represented.

“For example, we recently worked with a group of advisors to help streamline the process for clients’ first calls. We worked together to understand the parts of the process that were inefficient or ineffective for clients and agreed what we could do to resolve this. The advisors helped to test the new process on a small scale, which gave us all confidence that the changes would have a positive impact. The new process provided a better experience for both our advisors and our clients.”

For people experiencing problem debt, Matt’s advice is to not delay getting help. He says that lessening the stigma around problem debt is crucial to getting more people the help they need. “We want to see problem debt normalised so people can feel free to talk about it more openly without feeling ashamed, because quite often it isn’t anybody’s fault,” he says. “Some clients have said they’d be able to sleep for the first time in a year after speaking to an adviser; it might be the first person they’ve opened up to. The sense of relief can be massive. We can’t always solve every problem but we can at least empower people with the information they need to move forward.”

Find out more about StepChange at www.stepchange.org. The charity works in partnership with charities, banks and utility providers to promote their services and reach out to people when they need it most – learn more

Useful links

  • No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) Network 
    A national network safeguarding the welfare of destitute families, adults and care leavers who are unable to access benefits due to their immigration status. 
  • Women’s Aid
    The national domestic abuse charity supports women experiencing financial and economic abuse and debt.
  • SE15 Community Fund
    The SE15 Community Fund was established in May 2020 as a response to the financial difficulties people were experiencing during the pandemic.
  • MIND
    The mental health charity MIND identifies how mental ill health and financial worries can be connected.

Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

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