Keeping debt problems secret won’t cure them. We need to strip away the shame around financial struggles
Published: 14:30 BST, 28 August 2012 | Updated: 08:11 BST, 4 September 2012
The holidays are over, nights are drawing in and the feel good factor generated by the Olympics is already wearing thin. For most of us, September tends to signal a return to stark realities. This autumn, with no tangible improvement in our economic prospects on the horizon, for many people that will mean getting to grips with and facing up to some financial home truths.
A new study by the Co-operative Bank has found that people in relationships may be keeping as much as £41 billion of debts hidden from their partners, with more than one in 10 women and one in seven men confessing that they have debts which they keep secret from their partners.
It is not really surprising that people with mounting debts are too frightened or ashamed to come clean to even their nearest and dearest.
Economic woes: Shame and secrecy about money problems is apparently still rife
Admitting to financial struggles and debt problems is still somehow taboo, in our emotionally incontinent age where most people are happy to discuss openly and at length any number of their personal trials and tribulations, from incontinence to infidelity, from chronic addiction to cancer.
Yet the longer people struggle on alone with unmanageable debt, the more unmanageable it is bound to become. Desperate people clutch at straws and there is no coincidence that as the economy has limped along over the last few years and the credit crunch continues, the number of unregulated money lenders has exploded. Pawn brokers have not been this busy for decades while ostensibly legitimate pay-day loan companies with their astronomical rates of interest have proliferated to take advantage of this desperation.
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More than 10 million people in the UK, 20 per cent of the adult population, are currently locked in a constant struggle with debt and more than 2.5 million are in arrears on at least one consumer credit product, household bill or other domestic payment. The economy still looks fragile in the extreme and households are struggling to make ends meet. Rising prices and flat wage growth mean it now takes an increasingly bigger chunk of household income to put food on the table, put petrol in the car and to heat the home.
There is nothing really new in the Cooperative Bank’s findings that women and men don’t always come clean to each other about their finances or simply operate a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about certain expenses. The Japanese tradition of heso-kuri, secret savings by housewives or belly button money, dates back to feudal times and is still, in the 21st century, such an important sector of the Japanese economy that it is estimated in official surveys and reports.
What is worrying is that shame and secrecy about money problems is apparently still so rife. With the economy still in the doldrums, these secrets are far less likely to be hidden savings in clandestine accounts but rather an out-of-control credit card bill, a store card with an obscene APR, used to pay for increasingly unaffordable treats or an online gambling or bingo habit that may seem to promise a solution to money woes but only compounds the problem.
There are several charities and free debt advice organisations available, including the Consumer Credit Counselling Service, the Citizens Advice Bureau and the National Debt Line. The sooner people avail themselves of this advice, the sooner they can prevent a difficult situation spiralling into an unmanageable one. There should be no stigma attached to asking for help.
Somehow, we have got to work to remove the taboo surrounding debt and financial struggles. It is not that long ago that alcoholism, drug addiction and cancer were barely whispered about and almost never discussed openly. We can now be far more candid about all these problems and nobody affected needs suffer any longer in silence.
Perhaps the online poker and pay day loan sites which advertise so freely on day time television should be obliged – alongside their split-second show of their four figure average interest rates – to publicise the contact numbers for the debt advice charities?