'My hair fell out because I couldn't cope with my debt despair'

Benefit cuts and rising prices mean that more people than ever need help with their finances, says Simon Read

Worries about her increasing debt woes made Patricia Forster so ill that she lost her hair through alopecia. But after she turned to debt advisers at her local Citizens Advice Bureau the 55-year old mother of two has been able to regain control of her money and even afford to move to a decent home.

"I ended up in debt and on benefits partly because I was unable to hold down a job because I have a son who kept on getting into trouble at school," she says. "Eventually we managed to find him a special school which was much more suitable for him, but then my failing health meant I needed a pacemaker fitted."

Her daughter had moved away from their north-east home to Stoke-on-Trent and encouraged her mother and younger brother to make a similar switch so that she could help.

"We moved down in 2010 and struggled quite a bit for a while and I felt myself being drawn to moneylenders.

"I went to Wonga to help me get cash to get through but pretty soon my debts escalated," she says.

Patricia couldn't find work and in the worry began to neglect paying crucial bills, such as gas and electricity and high tax-credit overpayments she was being chased for.

But her daughter Cheryl worked at the YMCA in Hanley which led to Patricia doing volunteer work there, "just to get me out of the house and doing something and meeting people".

This proved a crucial turning point.

Soon she was offered a full-time job at the YMCA . And it was there that one of her new colleagues – who also worked at the local Citizens Advice Bureau – became aware of her money problems and suggested she talked to debt advisers at CAB.

"I wasn't aware that there was help available for people like me," Patricia says. "I feel foolish now that I didn't know and I make a point of telling people I meet at the YMCA who are in a similar position with money worries."

Debt workers at CAB agreed to see her after work to help. Her debts had risen to around £5,000, including nearly £3,000 for overpaid tax credits.

"I was told about a debt-relief order that I'd never heard of. I paid £90 and it helped clear certain debts and give me a chance to get back on my feet," Patricia says.

A debt-relief order is, effectively, a mini-bankruptcy and is only available for people who owe less than £15,000. It allows certain debts – such as overpaid benefits – to be written off after a year.

"They also had a scheme called Moneywise which meant having someone help me to budget and prioritise the most important debts, such as rent," says Patricia.

"They also pointed out the importance of paying the TV licence, as you can be jailed if you don't!"

Patricia says that she's now turned a corner.

"It's been two years since I started full-time work and I've been able to move into a decent home and sleep at night now. Pleasingly, now the worry is going, my hair is growing back."

The Moneywise scheme that helped Patricia get her life back on track was set up this year from money raised through the Big Lottery Fund. It's set up an Improving Financial Confidence programme through the Staffordshire North and Stoke-on-Trent CABs.

Dharmendra Kanani, Big Lottery Fund England director, explains: "Struggling with debts on a low income can be an all-consuming and desperate situation for many. This is why the Big Lottery Fund is helping people to manage their finances.

"By educating some of the country's most-vulnerable people about money management, products and wise ways to reduce outgoings and prioritise debts, it's reducing the desperation that drives people towards further credit loans as well as costly payday loans and loan sharks."

Research published last week by the British Bankers' Association revealed that people are increasingly using their credit cards to pay for their mortgage and food, with 40 per cent unable to pay off their cards every month and so taking on debt their cannot afford.

Mr Kanani reports that a fairly high proportion of people who've come through the Improving Financial Confidence programme use credit cards. It's a little surprising how easily they've been handed credit given that they are social-housing tenants and generally on low incomes or in financial difficulty.

In fact almost a third of them admit to having had a fixed-term loan or goods bought on credit. Meanwhile, 15 per cent had taken out a loan from a payday lender, pawnbroker or home credit lender.

The project is just one of many across the country set up to meet the growing demand from struggling people unable to cope with shrinking benefits, falling wages, or losing their job. Many are the targets of unscrupulous lenders hoping to profit from their vulnerability and desperation.

With the number of high-cost credit companies growing all the time, it's becoming crucial to ensure people know that there's free debt advice available to help people get out of a financial mess.

It's also important to let people know that there's no shame in admitting to having a debt problem.

"I did feel ashamed," admits Patricia. "Debt just took a hold on me and I was ashamed to tell anyone. But after talking to Citizens Advice I know there is no shame in debt."

Paul Crayston of The Money Advice Trust – which runs National Debtline – says: "Free debt advice can make a real difference. Our advisers are trained to analyse an individual's situation and outline the pros and cons of various ways forward.

"They also offer tools, such as sample letters, to help people communicate clearly and accurately with creditors."

The sample letters can be really helpful, especially for those unused to writing formal communications.

But the problem for all free debt advisers is finding cash to support their work.

"It is vital these services have the capacity to help all those who seek advice, and that money is invested in making sure the general public is aware such services exist," says Mr Crayston.

"We make no bones about it, though we remain entirely independent, our services benefit creditors – which includes the taxpayer – as they are more likely to have their money repaid in a sustainable manner where someone has gotten expert advice. That is why creditors fund our services and should continue to do so."

Sam Nurse, a client-services manager at Grant Thornton, is company secretary for the Institute of Money Advisers. She is an advocate of debt advice and keen to encourage those with financial worries to seek help.

"People need to know that many others are in debt and that there is non-judgemental, expert advice available from many organisations," she says. "In other words, you have options to deal with your debt."

She points out that it is key not to run away from debt but to open post from creditors and keep in contact with them.

"You should always make a request to freeze interest and charges and lower payments to what you can afford," she advises. "Creditors may not agree to your terms at first but they should come around."

In short she advises: arrange a debt-advice appointment; there are free providers such as Citizens Advice, StepChange Debt Charity, National Debtline and AdviceUK agencies.

But Peter Tutton, head of policy at the StepChange Debt Charity, says there's a deeper problem that needs to be addressed by government.

"Underlying all this lie much broader policy questions surrounding how to stop people falling into debt in this era of low wage growth, rising living costs and continued austerity."

He says those struggling with debt woes need forbearance from lenders.

"Anyone seeking debt advice or speaking to their lenders regarding financial difficulty should see interest and charges frozen, for instance.

"We need better regulation of consumer credit, to ensure better protections for vulnerable consumers. This week's FCA (Financial Conduct Authority) consultation about payday lenders is a welcome step in the right direction. There also needs to be greater efforts to identify those in hardship, to ensure that they are not pushed deeper into a cycle of borrowing and debt."

Mr Tutton says those struggling with debt woes need to be signposted to free advice and the Government should ensure there is sufficient capacity in the free-advice sector.

Making a difference: Kathleen Cawley

Single mother Kathleen, 51, hopes to get work soon.

She lives with her 12-year-old son in Stoke and says of her debts: "I woke up and realised this has got to stop, there is no point ignoring them."

She turned to Citizens Advice after struggling to pay her rent and being threatened with a notice seeking possession. Kathleen also has debts with water, social fund, council tax and a court fine and cannot read or write, having been being pulled out of school to look after her siblings.

With the help of the Big Lottery-funded Moneywise scheme, she is now taking courses in literacy and arithmetic as well as computers.

The latter is crucial as the ability to use a computer is require when universal credit is introduced.

Now she is paying off her debts, and feels much less stressed now that the letters and phone calls have stopped.

If she does get a letter she knows she can ask Moneywise for help – they call on her every few weeks to check how she is getting on.

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