'Madame Bovary syndrome' sends record number of women bankrupt

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Record numbers of young professional women are being declared bankrupt after running up debts of as much as £100,000 on designer clothes, exotic holidays and expensive social lives.

Personal bankruptcies among women, which were virtually unheard of a decade ago, are now growing by 25 per cent a year, according to specialists in insolvency.

Uncontrolled spending on credit cards is largely to blame for the so-called "Madame Bovary syndrome", in which women allow extravagant tastes to far outstrip their means.

In Gustave Flaubert's novel, Madame Bovary, the heroine marries a country doctor but quickly becomes bored and looks elsewhere for romance, acquiring huge debts along the way to pay for her affairs and a way of life that is more grandiose than she can afford.

Many modern women can rapidly accumulate debts of between £25,000 and £50,000 in pursuit of lifestyles that provide them with excitement and a feeling of self-worth, said Louise Brittain of the accountancy firm Baker Tilley.

Famous examples include Paula Yates and the Duchess of York. Yates, who earned large sums from her television career, left only £14,000 at her death. The Duchess of York drew strong public criticism for running up debts of £4 million, which she has struggled to pay off.

Filing for bankruptcy in the insolvency courts is sometimes the only way out of the problem, according to Ms Brittain, but the personal consequences can often last well beyond the three-year bankruptcy period.

The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux has recently warned that the number of people seeking help for large debts has increased by 37 per cent over two years. It blamed the ease of acquiring store cards, credit cards, mail order and hire purchase deals, loans and overdrafts for the 1 million debt inquiries it has handled.

The Department of Trade and Industry will this week publish the findings of a task force set up to stop people falling into the debt trap. The DTI task force, with members drawn from across the credit industry, is expected to recommend tighter checks to curb irresponsible lending and to make the "small print" on credit agreements more transparent.

Miss Brittain said some female clients had obtained 20 to 30 credit cards, together with personal loans, without giving much thought to how they would meet the repayments.

She identified three types of debtors. Firstly, there areindependent young women with a "work hard, play hard" mentality. They like to go out to trendy places, buy the latest fashion accessories and go on long-haul holidays.

The second category, bored housewives and divorcees, are using shopping to fill their lives. And the third group, a new phenomenon, are older women trying to cope with the aftermath of their children leaving home.

"There is definitely a pattern of people trying to make something of their lives. They are unhappy or trying to fill a void," Ms Brittain said. "Culturally, things have changed too. People have higher expectations of their standard of living. The credit companies have also loosened up.

"There is no central register for the number of credit cards people have, so you can literally go out and get dozens of them and then try to juggle the repayments. It astounds me how much debt people run up."

Gill Hankey of the Bankruptcy Advisory Service said she had seen a "huge increase in approaches from female debtors". Five years ago, there were hardly any. "I see women with wallets like concertinas, full of credit cards," she said. "Some of them shop to replace whatever else is missing in their lives."

In Britain, 1,500 types of cards are available from 60 companies. Women make up 44 per cent of the card-owning population, with 11.5 million women owning one or more cards.

Sophie Brookes of National Debtline said that the charity used to receive equal numbers of inquiries from men and women, but 57 per cent of callers were now women. One-third of callers had debts of £5,000 to £15,000 and one in seven had debts of £25,000 to £50,000.

"Creditors are desperate to get people's business, so inevitably they offer good deals to draw people in," she said. "People don't set out to get in debt. But they don't always think about the small print."