Debt is a feminist issue: Huge leap in bankruptcy among women

Record numbers of women are struggling to stay afloat financially, and the experts are divided on the reasons why

Rachel Shields
Sunday 25 July 2010 00:00 BST

The number of British women going bankrupt has risen almost fivefold in the past 10 years, with new figures revealing a 28 per cent increase in the past year alone. In some cases, according to insolvency experts, the surge is down to the "irresponsible spending" of women trying to emulate glamorous celebrities, while others are being driven to financial ruin by unemployment, pay inequality and childcare costs.

New figures from the Insolvency Service show that women now account for 40 per cent of all bankruptcies, rising from 6,042 in 2000 to 29,680 in 2009.

Younger women are finding it particularly difficult to manage their money, with those between the ages of 25 and 44 making up almost two-thirds of female bankruptcies. In 2009 17,595 declared themselves bankrupt, up from 13,575 in 2008.

Where female insolvency was once hardly spoken of, for this, too, there are now celebrity "role models". The singers Kerry Katona and Mica Paris both went bankrupt, despite earlier having million-pound fortunes.

Women are also taking up other official debt resolutions, such as debt relief orders (DROs) and individual voluntary agreements (IVAs).

"These figures show that more and more young women have levels of debt incurred through trying to maintain lifestyles that are unsustainable," says Graham Horne, deputy chief executive of the Insolvency Service. "It is critical that all young people are aware of the impact that irresponsible spending can have. Filing for bankruptcy or obtaining a debt relief order should be viewed as a last resort."

Women's rights organisations have countered that, far from being profligate or financially illiterate, they simply "earn less, own less and have lower earning potential" than men. Experts have pointed to the effects on finance of divorce – after which women are overwhelmingly left poorer than men – single motherhood and career breaks to look after children.

The Consumer Credit Counselling Service (CCCS), a debt advice charity, believes women have now overtaken men in the bankruptcy stakes; 51 per cent of the people it recommended bankruptcy to in 2009 were female. Overall, male bankruptcies rose by 18 per cent in 2009.

"One thing that stands out is that 58 per cent of women made bankrupt are between the ages of 25 and 44. They are the ones who are spending and incurring credit card debt," says Nigel Millar, business recovery partner with the accounting service Baker Tilly LLP. "Females have much more control than they used to over their own finances; however, they are getting more credit and incurring the consequences."

Research by the Equal Opportunities Commission in 2004 found that breaks from work to care for children or relatives accounted for 14 per cent of the pay gap. "Women typically earn less, own less, and have lower earning potential," says Anna Bird, head of policy and campaigns at the Fawcett Society. "When it comes to rising unemployment, women who lose their jobs are less likely than men to have savings, so they become dependent on benefits more quickly."

In addition to a rise in bankruptcies, women are also turning to the new DROs – a form of insolvency introduced in April 2009 aimed at people with debts under £15,000, assets of less than £300 and only £50 a month surplus income. In 2009, 63 per cent of DROs were awarded to women, with 12 per cent awarded to people under 25. The number of women entering into IVAs – under which a repayment plan is agreed with creditors – rose by 22 per cent, while the number of men taking the same action rose by 20 per cent.

The CCCS believes that rising unemployment is one reason for the increasing number of insolvent women. And experts have warned that the situation will get worse as the public sector is hit by spending cuts. Women are twice as likely as men to work in the sector, with four in every 10 employed in public sector occupations.

"These figures make for worrying reading," Ms Bird says. "The rise in women having financial trouble is especially disturbing when you consider the likely disproportionate impact of the emergency Budget. Women will bear the brunt of cuts."

Social factors, including rising divorce rates and an increase in lone parents – nine out of 10 of whom are women – are thought to be leaving women more cash-strapped than ever.

"There are a lot more single households. There is a degree to which that is contributing," Mr Millar says. "The only advice I can give people is to live within your means and control your expenditure."

Recent studies have shown that divorce leaves men richer, but women poorer. Research by the Institute for Social and Economic Research in 2009 found that, contrary to popular belief, men were 25 per cent richer five years after divorce, whereas women's incomes fell by a fifth.

However, some analysts point out that in many cases bankruptcy is not linked to poverty but to financial mismanagement. Louise Brittain, head of bankruptcy at the accountancy firm Deloitte, which has handled the bankruptcies of celebrities including Katona, Grant Bovey and Bruce Grobbelaar, explains: "Sometimes they haven't paid their tax bill; others have got involved in legal action which they have lost and can't afford to pay. There are different reasons."

While there are negative consequences to going bankrupt – it must be declared publicly in a newspaper, still carries social stigma and affects an individual's ability to borrow money in the future – some argue that the increasing number of women becoming insolvent can be seen as a positive change.

"It was ridiculously skewed before; when I started 20 years ago, I would hardly ever see women going bankrupt," Ms Brittain says. "The rise is partly because there are more women starting their own businesses, which should be encouraged."

Kimberly Randall, 23, Stockport

"I feel I should know better, but I'm thousands of pounds in debt. Most of my debt comes from credit cards and buying from catalogues. I spent £200 on clothes from a catalogue and now owe them £648 because of £12 non-payment charges. I am overweight and can't just pick up a cheap little dress in the market, but there is a pressure to look good. I do try to make the effort: I will get my hair cut or buy lip gloss. It's definitely more difficult to live within your means now. I used to be able to go on a night out and spend £30, but now I need £70. I'm getting married in six weeks and all my partner's salary is going into the wedding fund. Hopefully, after the wedding we will be able to start to pay off our debts."

Gail Clayton, 37, Sussex

"Over the past few years, I was made redundant from my job as a manager for a transport company, and my husband was made redundant twice. Debts built up. We'd got a loan to buy a car, but couldn't manage it any more, and we reached the limits on our credit cards. We had a mortgage – interest rates alone meant that it was £1,100 – and my parents had to help us to keep a roof over our heads. At one point my mother was so worried about us that she went to the Salvation Army to get us a food hamper. In total, we owe about £48,000 now; about a quarter of that is interest charges. I got a new job, but my daughters are six and three, and I'm spending £15,000 a year on childcare. There is a stigma to being in this situation. People look at you as if you've mismanaged your money, but it is just life, we've had some bad luck. We aren't excessive: we don't go on holiday, and the girls don't have new clothes. We thought about going bankrupt, but were advised that we'd be better off taking up an Individual Voluntary Agreement. It is a huge worry."

Laura Wadsworth, 26, Manchester

"I started getting credit cards at 18, and had five by the time I was 22. I was using them to buy holidays – I went to Malta, Greece, the Canaries – and clothes. It was free money then. I wasn't worried about paying it back. I was working as a supervisor in a pub and being paid £12,000 a year. It wasn't that I couldn't manage on it, but I wanted the rest: new electronics and stuff. I got married at 22 and took out a loan to pay for that. When I was 23 I realised how bad my situation was and set up a debt management plan with an organisation called ClearDebt.I separated from my husband about a year ago, and money was a factor. I'm £14,000 in debt and regret it a lot. I repay as much as I can now, but it will take me years to pay it back."

Women who had it all ...

Rosie Millard

In 2005, the former BBC arts correspondent revealed she was £40,000 in debt and her bank account had been frozen. Though property investments 'turned into a nightmare', she said taking on four credit cards was her downfall. The married mother of four insisted she needed "a decent haircut every eight weeks, Stila make-up and The New Yorker magazine".

Liz Jones

A columnist, Jones says debt problems began in her twenties. "I thought my new wardrobe would get me a job. The bill took years to pay off." A £4,000 cheque for a boob job also bounced. Later expenditures included a £26,000 bat sanctuary. Now, she says, "I dream of owning nothing, so I can sleep again."

Kerry Katona

The singer bought supercars and bikes, several homes and lots of cocaine. When advert, book and television deals later dried up, the ex-Atomic Kitten owed the taxman £82,000. Declared bankrupt in 2008, she famously "danced down the street" in 2009 after being discharged.

Toni Braxton

Despite album sales grossing more than $170m (£110m), the R&B singer-songwriter, who has won six Grammy awards, was declared bankrupt in 1998 with debts of $2.8m. Extravagant purchases, including bamboo-handled Gucci silverware and a personalised home caviare service, contributed to her financial difficulties.

Sarah Ferguson

The Duchess of York fired 12 members of staff last week as financial difficulties pinched. Ferguson is currently £2m in the red, owes £200,000 to solicitors Davenport Lyons, and in May foolishly attempted to sell access to her former husband, Prince Andrew, to an undercover reporter for £500,000.

Sherrie Hewson

The actress, 57, declared herself bankrupt in 2007 after losing her £130,000pa Emmerdale role and being threatened with the bailiffs. Twice-divorced Hewson, who also played Maureen Webster in Coronation Street, once spent £3,000 on a breast enhancement for her daughter's 21st birthday.

LaToya Jackson

One of Michael Jackson's sisters, LaToya filed for bankruptcy in a Los Angeles court in 1995. Financial grief followed an ailing singing career, along with a habit of regularly breaking contracts – in one case leaving her with $550,000 damages owed to one nightclub – and an expensive beauty regime that included manicures costing $500 a time.

Cyndi Lauper

The chanteuse was declared bankrupt in 1981 after being sued for $80,000 by a former manager when a single with her band Blue Angel flopped. She later quit the band and went on to enjoy a successful singing career, with total record sales amounting to more than $25m.

Anna Nicole Smith

The former Playboy model filed for bankruptcy in 1996 despite an annual income of at least $275,000. Court files later revealed she lost jewels worth millions and couldn't pay a $265 gas bill. After the 1995 death of her billionaire husband, she fought a fierce legal battle over his fortune.

Kim Basinger

The actress's downfall came after she pulled out of the Jennifer Lynch film Boxing Helena. The film studio won an $8m judgment against her, exacerbating her long-standing financial woes. The Academy Award winner filed for bankruptcy in 1998 – and admitted that buying the town of Braselton, Georgia, in 1989 for $20m was a mistake.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in