Simon Read: Ditch the plastic before you're forced into distressed borrowing


Suggestions emerged this week that more people are putting essential expenses on plastic. Bank of England figures showed that the amount of money borrowed on credit cards and loans climbed by £629m in September, its highest increase for seven months. The news prompted one expert to claim that 'stressed borrowing' is happening.

That's when people are so short of cash they are forced to resort to paying for such things as food or heating with a credit card. If true it means a debt disaster is likely to be just around the corner for them as, if they can't afford to pay for food now, next month will be even worse. Not only will the bills arrive, but there will be debt to repay and interest on that debt.

Against that background the amount of debt on credit cards has actually fallen quite remarkably in recent years as the recession has encouraged people to cut back on expensive credit. In fact credit card debt reached a peak of £69bn in February 2006, and has since fallen back to £57bn, according to the UK Cards Association.

But it's also worth noting that the average amount charged by credit cards has climbed. Nine years ago the average interest rate charged was 13.9 per cent. Now it stands at 18.4 per cent, almost 50 per cent higher. Bear in mind that that's an average figure so some people will be paying much less, and many will be charged much more.

The people who will be charged the most on credit cards will be those who can least afford it. The hard-up families who are living life on the edge and being forced to borrow to feed themselves. The average household debt in the UK, according to debt charity Credit Action, now stands at £8,025. If you include mortgages the figure soars to £55,795.

More alarmingly the average amount owed by every adult in the UK is £29,532. That figure in itself is distressingly high. When you bear in mind it works out as 122 per cent of average earnings, the picture of potential debt misery gets blacker.

Some critics say that people who allow themselves to get into such high debt are foolish. That no one forced them to borrow. But, as has been pointed out, many are turning to plastic as a last resort. Not for pleasure or fun, but for the essentials we need to stay alive.

For many people, of course, a credit card is a convenience they think they could not survive without. Plenty use it to spend during the month and then pay for everything in one go. The clever card users even ensure they get cashback or rewards for doing so, making the most of their spending.

But the danger with easy access to plastic is that if things get tough people may turn to it, as many have already, to survive. And that is a recipe for a quick route to debt disaster. With many now facing losing jobs as the recession bites harder, it's time to trash the plastic, to keep temptation away.