Families use plastic to pay the mortgage
More than one million families have resorted to using credit cards to pay their mortgage or rent in the past 12 months in order to keep a roof over their head.
Research by housing charity Shelter found that households from across the range of income brackets are using debt to pay for essential fixed costs, despite the long-term risk of building up further debt and affecting their credit records.
It warns that many of these families could find themselves facing homelessness this year because of their huge debts.
The survey, which was carried out on a sample of 2,022 people, found that 6% of respondents with mortgage or rent obligations said they had used their credit card over the past 12 months to pay this monthly cost. Shelter says this suggests a national figure of more than one million households.
The problem was particularly rife in the capital, with one in 12 Londoners admitting they have resorted to plastic.
"This is a shocking discovery, that over a million households in Britain are in such desperate circumstances that they need to borrow money on credit cards to pay for basic housing costs,” says Kay Boycott, director of policy and campaigns at Shelter.
"If people are already struggling to the extent that they fear losing their home, increasing credit card debt cannot be the answer."
As well as building up debt, people who use their credit card in this way are at risk of losing their homes, as credit card companies still have to recover their debts and are not subject to the same rules as mortgage lenders.
It is possible for plastic providers to covert unsecured debt into secured debt - known as a charging order - which allows them to obtain a court possession order to force a sale to recover the debt.
Boycott says: "It is absolutely vital that every single person using credit cards in this way seeks advice urgently to get the help they need to ensure they don't lose their home.”
Used by the holder to buy goods and services, credit cards also have a monthly or annual spending limit, which may be raised or lowered depending on the creditworthiness of the cardholder. But unlike charge cards, borrowers aren’t forced to pay the balance off in full every month and, as long as they make a stated minimum payment, can carry a balance from one month to the next, generating compound interest. As the issuing company is effectively giving you a short-term loan, most credit cards have variable and relatively high interest rates. Allowing the interest to compound for too long may result in dire financial straits.