It’s easy to get comfortable living with debt and many of us do – mortgages and student loans being the typical examples.
Yet it’s vital to recognise when debt becomes a problem, or when you’re heading even further into the red.
Here, we explain how to work out what you owe and how to pay it off, whether you are just in the red or are struggling with problem debt.
Put together a budget
Budgeting isn’t just about figuring out what you already owe, it’s about understanding whether your income can meet your expenses
Dig out all your financial documents then use an online calculator – like this one by Citizens Advice – to work out what you’ve got left at the end of the month.
Whilst this research could unearth some frightening surprises it could also reveal forgotten savings or options (like reducing pension contributions) that could free up money to pay off debt.
It’s also worth checking your credit report, as having a poor credit rating narrows your options for getting out of debt.
If anything looks incorrect, contact the credit agency directly to request it gets changed.
Then have a look at costs you can cut. We’ve got articles on cutting your groceries bill, paying less for gas and electricity and 22 other ways to make more money.
Have you got problem debt?
Your budget should give you a set of numbers. But it’s crucial to understand what debt you can deal with and what is problem debt.
Debt charity StepChange has a 60-second, five-question test to help you work this out.
Another approach is to plan out how you would pay off the debt. How long would it take you? Are you realistically able to cut your spending enough to fund repayments?
Dealing with debt yourself is only advised if you’re confident you can pay off your debts and have a decent credit rating.
The aim is to make your debts interest-free, so your repayments are all going to reducing the size of the debt. This assumes, of course, that you can afford to make repayments (if not, see the next section).
You can do this with Balance Transfer cards, for credit card debt, and Money Transfer cards, for overdraft debt.
These cards can give you up to 35 months at 0% interest – although there’s usually a fee attached. You’ll still need to make minimum repayments, but these cards could provide useful breathing space.
Make sure you can pay off your debts by the end of the 0% period and don’t break the conditions of the card. Also use a soft search to be confident you’ll be approved for a card before applying, to protect your credit rating.
Contact a debt charity
Debt charities should not be seen as a last resort, but instead a source of free advice and practical assistance.
Increasingly they are trying to intervene earlier and provide advice, even if it appears your debts are not too serious.
Debt charities include StepChange and National Debtline. These are free, unlike commercial organisations, and have experts who can help you.
When you contact a debt charity, an adviser will take you through your budget and debts – this can be done on the phone, by online chat or sometimes in person.
That’s why it’s worth getting your documents together before picking up the phone.
Based on the results, they can recommend a number of different solutions.
Debt Management Plan
In this case, the debt charity contacts your creditors – such as your bank, utilities provider or council – on behalf of you.
You’ll need at least some money to make repayments.
A Debt Management Plan asks your creditors to agree to a plan for repaying the debt, which typically involves lower monthly repayments then you were previously making.
This has another advantage, in that in some cases you can make a single monthly payment to the charity, which distributes the money to creditors, rather than keeping note of all repayments yourself.
Unfortunately, creditors don’t have to agree to Debt Management Plans, although most do.
You will still be required to make the regular monthly payments for priority debts such as Council Tax, gas and electricity and your mortgage or rent payments.
In Scotland, a debt charity can set up a Debt Arrangement Scheme, although this involves fees and consequences for your credit file.
Individual Voluntary Arrangement
A more formal and legally binding approach is the Individual Voluntary Arrangement (IVA), which is a form of insolvency. You’ll need at least some money to make repayments.
You make affordable monthly repayments over five to six years, at the end of which any unsecured debts are written off. If you’re a homeowner, this may help you keep your home, unlike bankruptcy.
An IVA does restrict your spending during those years and your credit rating and potentially career will take a hit. Again, creditors don’t have to agree to it.
Citizen’s Advice estimates the cost of setting up an IVA at £5,000, although it is possible to include this in your monthly payments.
If your debts are under £5,000, and you’ve got a County Court Judgement and two or more debts, you could get an Administration Order. It’s a legally-enforced debt payment plan with your creditors which is set up by a court, which takes 10% of your monthly payments.
A rough equivalent to the IVA in Scotland is a Protected Trust Deed, which runs for four years.
The objective of equity release is to generate cash from your home in order to pay off your debts.
It’s a financial product that will most likely be used as part of a wider debt-reduction strategy.
Equity release has a major advantage in that you get to keep your home and continue living in it.
It most certainly isn't for everyone and it’s vital you get professional advice before applying for any equity release products: a debt charity should be able to help with this.
Debt Relief Orders and Bankruptcy
If your debts are worth less than £20,000, you aren’t a homeowner and have very little left for repayments, a Debt Relief Order (DRO) could be an option.
It freezes repayments and interest for 12 months; if your financial situation hasn’t improved by then the debt is written off. It does, however, affect your credit report negatively.
Bankruptcy (which is a form of insolvency) means your debt is written off and your creditors can’t contact you.
It has several disadvantages, including the risk of losing your home and vehicle.
Bankruptcy stays on your credit files for six years and going bankrupt could affect your ability to hold certain legal or financial jobs, such as being a police officer.
In Scotland, sequestration and MAP bankruptcy are similar processes although with several important processes.
Key contacts and resources
The organisations below provide free debt advice and are in most cases charities:
Citizens Advice – use their website to find your local branch;
StepChange – 0800 138 1111, 8am-8pm on weekdays, Saturday 8am-4pm;
National Debtline – 0808 808 4000, 9am-8pm on weekdays, Saturday 9.30am-1pm;
Debt Advice Foundation – 0800 043 40 50, 8am-8pm on weekdays, Saturday 9am to 3pm;
Business Debtline (for those self-employed) – 0800 197 6026, 9am-8pm on weekdays.