Will household debt make the cost of living crisis worse? | UK News

New data reveals it is becoming increasingly difficult for people in the UK to pay off their debt – especially more affluent households.

By the end of this year, the richest 20% of the population will see their ability to meet debt repayments fall by more than twice as much as the poorest 20%, according to information from Oxford Economics and Harvgreaves Lansdown.

“It’s going to be a stretch, all the luxuries are going to have to go,” says Becky Portsmouth, a council worker from Basingstoke.

Becky and her partner have a combined income of £54,000 a year. This is above the UK average, but they are are still struggling with rising prices and mortgage payments. They are not alone.

On average, people with Becky’s household income will see a 5.8 percentage point fall in their ability to pay off debt.

“We have always wanted to work to live, not live to work,” she says. “But at the moment, we just have to work and pay bills and that’s going to be it.

“We have an increased mortgage for a new house and with childcare costs on top, as well as all the extra bills, it’s just got rid of any disposable income.

“I work for local government, so pay never goes up with inflation. It makes me question if I should change jobs because I can’t afford to live my life properly and I don’t want to end up getting into debt.”

Becky Portsmouth with her partner Adam and two-year-old son Ethan

Increasing food and energy prices have meant a rapid rise in interest rates, which influence the cost of things like credit cards and mortgages.

Sarah Coles, a senior personal finance analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, says that richer households are more affected by the squeeze on budgets because they tend to take on more debt.

Ms Coles says that the rising cost of debt is going to require a “culture shift” as people have become used to low and unchanging interest rates.

“It’s easy to forget that interest rates go up as well as down – you can be 30 and not have experienced consistently rising rates before,” she says.

Low-income households also face a growing debt problem

Despite having less debt on average, low-income households are more likely to struggle to keep up with repayments and to use debt to fund everyday spending.

The richest 20% are almost three-times more likely than the poorest 20% to take out “good” debt – for example, to buy assets like a home and build financial resilience, rather than for everyday spending.

This is because poorer households use a larger proportion of their income to cover essentials like food and energy bills, which are getting increasingly expensive.

As they have a “lot less wiggle room” to cut costs they are at greater risk of entering into a negative debt spiral, says Ms Coles.

“They’re on a much finer knife edge,” she says. “It doesn’t take an enormous amount for people who are just about making ends meet to turn into somebody who’s not making enough at all.”

Jane Holter, a carer from East Sussex

Jane works full time looking after her mum and is on carer’s allowance of £67.60 a week. After her partner lost his second part-time job last year, they’ve struggled to cover the cost of rent, council tax and other bills.

“Once all the direct debits go out [on bills], my partner’s wages have gone and we’re living on £67.60 a week. I’m putting £25 to £30 on electric and whatever on gas and then I’ve still got to try and feed the house,” she says.

“At the moment, my partner’s going to the food bank each week and just before Christmas, we got two fuel vouchers from Citizen’s Advice because we couldn’t afford to put gas or electric on.”

They have been trying to renegotiate their council tax since August last year and in the meantime have got into rent arrears with the housing association.

“I’ve got other debts, which I pay £2 a month towards. But I wouldn’t take out any more loans because it’s going to propel us into more debt and then we’ll be in an even worse mess.

“My mum gave me £300 pounds to pay some of it off. But we have to pay her back so much every month because she’s only on attendance allowance.

“This is the worst it’s ever been with money – it’s really hard.”

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