Melanie Bien: All dressed up... and no way of clearing our debt

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The Independent Online

British consumers are close to being £1 trillion in debt, according to official figures released last week - a figure so huge, it loses any real meaning.

British consumers are close to being £1 trillion in debt, according to official figures released last week - a figure so huge, it loses any real meaning.

But when debt affects individuals, the problem does hit home. I took part in a radio phone-in on the Vanessa Feltz show on BBC London last week, where listeners were invited to call in with any debt questions. I was there to provide tips that could be put to good use .

We were inundated with calls. And it is only when you listen to some of the tales of woe that you realise there are no quick solutions. There is no easy advice that can be dished out.

One female caller had got herself into £30,000 worth of debt - a lot by anyone's standards, especially as she didn't have a mortgage. She had run up an overdraft and credit card debt, on top of her student loans, and she was also a single mum. She could see no way out of her problems.

Worse still, she told me a friend was advising her to "go bankrupt and get a clean slate". She was seriously considering this as it seemed there was no other way out. It was hard not to agree. Apart from saying she could ask her local Citizens Advice Bureau to intervene on her behalf - so her creditors froze the interest on the debts in return for small, regular payments - what else could I suggest?

Bankruptcy, I told her, is a last resort - something you do when you've got nothing left to lose. The trouble was, it seemed she might have already reached that point. In these situations, you can understand why the temptation to wipe out debt in one fell swoop can be so enticing.

The really depressing thing is that this caller isn't the first to be in this position - and won't be the last. Rock-bottom interest rates and the easy availability of credit have fuelled an explosion in debt.

Now, more people are finding they can't repay what they owe - a problem that will become still more acute if the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee raises the cost of borrowing by a further quarter-point to 4.5 per cent when it meets this week, and further again later this year - as many experts predict.

Last Thursday, I headed to the exhibition centre at Earl's Court, west London, as a guest of American Express for an Alexander McQueen fashion show. Amex sponsors the British designer, and to celebrate the fifth anniversary in the UK of the exclusive Centurion credit card, he has designed a limited edition illustrated with a thigh-high diamanté-studded boot.

It all smacks of wealth and glamour - a piece of plastic which is highly desirable and with only 10 available for Mr McQueen and his closest friends, such as Kate Moss, I won't ever be in the position to own one, but it made me think: it's no wonder that people are spending beyond their means when the rich think nothing of paying £650 a year simply to own a Centurion card. The pressure to spend, spend, spend is immense.

Faced with so much conspicuous consumption and clothes worth many thousands of pounds, it is easy to forget there are people on the breadline struggling to make ends meet. But there are too many of them to put the problem out of our minds. A £1 trillion debt might not mean much in real terms, but for those who live in daily fear of bailiffs at their front door, it's a horrible reality.

m.bien@independent.co.uk

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