Everyone needs good advice, whoever you are.

Citizens Advice Stevenage Debt Project
The last day of January will be the busiest day of the year for people seeking help with their debts, predicts Citizens Advice Stevenage.

Analysis of data from the past twelve months shows that on 31st January 2017, Citizens Advice helped 2,800 people across the UK - 30% above the daily average. This means that one person sought help from Citizens Advice every ten seconds!

Locally, Citizens Advice Stevenage, an independent charity based in the town centre, has seen an increase during the month of January, but demand for money advice is always high throughout the year.

Citizens Advice is a highly respected charity offering advice on a wide range of issues, such as consumer problems, housing, employment, relationship, welfare benefits and of course debt. Those with money problems are referred to the ‘Get out of debt, stay out of debt’ project which is run by two specialist debt advisers, Mascha Collier and Clare Wilson, and 5 debt volunteer advisers.

“The project is very successful”, says Andy Rice, recently appointed CEO. “In the first 18 months of the project we helped 405 clients. We increased their income by nearly £100,000 and helped write off debts of more than £325,000. ” Debts can be tackled in a variety of ways: through bankruptcies or Debt Relief Orders (a lighter form of bankruptcy for those on low income with debts of less than £20,000) for clients with no spare income; or via debt management plans or Individual Voluntary Arrangements for those who do have some money spare.

“The post Christmas spending hangover is of course a factor this time of year”, Mascha says. “Families spent too much over the festive season and now the credit card statements are hitting the doormat.”

However, for many households the financial problems run much deeper. Usually there is a crisis that causes a family to fall behind on payments. Common triggers are the loss of a job,  illness or a relationship breakdown. Domestic abuse is also a frequent factor.

“Being in debt can be embarrassing and very stressful”, says Clare. “Clients often struggle on for five or more years sinking further into debt before finally seeking help. The final straw is often when the landlord threatens with eviction or the bailiffs are sent round to collect council tax. Not everybody realises that enforcement agents are allowed to add charges to a bill, which can add hundreds of pounds to a debt”.

The link between long-term debt and mental health is well documented. At Citizens Advice, the project is confronted daily with the impact of problem debt. “Clients are weighed down by the burden of debt for years. Often they can’t see a way out and are totally overwhelmed. The most common reaction is to bury heads in the sand and hope the debt will go away”. This of course rarely happens. Instead, those in debt are subjected to constant demands for money, via daily phone calls, text messages and many letters, adding to the stress of being in debt- 4 in 5 clients say that our advice “improved my life”; 70% said they felt “less stressed”.

One in four of Citizens Advice Stevenage’s clients is in full-time employment, but 47% have an income of less than £600.  And 39% report a disability or long-term health problem. 77% of clients say that they could not have solved their problem without our help.

Any debt can be problem, even if the amount is relatively low”, explains Mascha. “Most clients have debts of at least £2,500, but more commonly between £5,000 and £20,000. The highest amount we have dealt with to date was £115,000 of debt, run up by a client with a young family who for years tried to keep his unsuccessful business afloat by borrowing on credit cards. We helped him apply for bankruptcy.”

Clare adds: “A few years ago it was all credit card and payday loan debts. Now we see clients who are in low-paid employment and who are struggling to pay essential bills, such as rent, council tax, food, gas and electricity. We regularly send clients to the foodbank to help them survive.”

Take Helen* for example. An abusive partner forced her to take out multiple credit cards and used them to spend in her name. By the time the relationship ended, she had debts of more than £40,000. For nearly 15 years she tried to pay back this huge debt out of her modest wages. When she left work and could no longer afford the repayments, creditors responded with an onslaught of phone calls and letters demanding payment. The pressure led her to become clinically depressed and reclusive. She barely left the house and avoided speaking to people. Eventually she sought our help. It took many hours of work but Citizens Advice persuaded a number of creditors to write off the debts. Once the total debt dropped below £20,000, we were able to apply for a Debt Relief Order.  Although Helen is still battling mental health issues, resolving her debt problems has made a big difference: “I have some hope for the future again thanks to the help that Citizens Advice gave me. They’ve been absolutely brilliant.”  

Citizens Advice Stevenage drop-in service runs Mon, Tue, Thu, Fri 10am till 3:30pm.

To offer the breadth and depth of advice that they do, Citizens Advice relies on an group of dedicated and passionate volunteers. As austerity bites ever harder, demand on their services is increasing. They are therefore looking for more volunteers to come forwards to be trained as advisors, to help on reception, or simply to fundraise.

If you’re interested, please visit www.stevenagecab.org.uk

Or call 01438 722126

*Name changed for purposes of confidentiality

Article Credit: Mascha Collier