Debt is a ‘real problem for a significant minority’

16 January 2018

When it comes to debt, it appears that wealthier households carry the largest burden, according to data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

The think tank found that just under half (47%) of UK households hold at least some unsecured consumer debt.

And while the amount of unsecured debt fell steadily after the financial crisis, it has been creeping up again since 2014. As of April 2017, consumer debt in the UK amounted to just over £200 billion.

The IFS says 43% of this debt comes in the form of credit cards, 25% is from store cards, while 21% relates to hire purchase debt, such as personal contract purchases for cars. Overdrafts account for around 5% of the total consumer debt in the UK.

Over 60% of this unsecured debt is held by households with above-average incomes, and more than half of households with unsecured debts have more than enough financial assets to pay them off.

However, at the other end of the scale, one in 10 households has more than £10,000 of unsecured debt, and that of those who earn the lowest average income, more than one in three (35%) has more debt than their total financial assets. In addition, 16% of those on the lowest incomes are in arrears on their debt repayments. This compares to just 7% of all households.

The difference between age groups is also stark. More than 70% of 20- to 24-year-olds hold some unsecured debt. Over 50% have debts of more than £1,000. But this figure drops sharply to less than 40% of 60- to 64-year-olds holding some debt. See the table below for the distribution by age group:

Debt is a ‘real problem for a significant minority’

Source: IFS, January 2018.

‘Debt a real problem for a significant minority’

David Sturrock, a research economist at the IFS and an author of the report, comments: “Most unsecured debt is held by high income households who look able to manage it, and more than half of those with debts have enough financial assets to pay them off.

“But debt looks like a real problem for a significant minority of those on low incomes, who are not keeping up with bills and/or spending high fractions of their disposable income on debt repayment. Headline numbers are no guide to the scale of ‘problem debt’: distinguishing between debts that are entirely appropriate and those that look unmanageable is crucial.”


In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

In todays society debt is considered to be normal. Many people get a credit card at 18 years old and learn that life is usual with debt. Typically a credit card owner slips into debt by buying many small purchases and all of these add up. They don't have one large item to show for their debt. The credit card owner has to pay their bill before their monthly due date. Debt is like fire: a small fire is easy to put out and a huge fire is very hard to put out. If a person has more than one debt to pay then it is very stressful. I have used Zero percent interest credit cards to buy a flight. For example buy a flight for £1200 and pay off the debt at £200 a month. If I only had paid the minimum payment than I wouldn't have got out of that debt. I paid off my mortgage in June 2017 my provider offered me a Zero percent Interest credit card. I took up that offer and booked some flights. I paid all that money back now. I used to have a debit card with Norwich and Peterborough Building Society. I used to be able to load money onto it and spend it overseas with no foreign charges. With any of my other debit cards I face foreign charges overseas. I hate the feeling of being in debt. When booking a flight it has to be with a credit card. I find that annoying these days because I wish to avoid debt.

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Sorry but I have no sympathy for most of these with debts, if it was caused by spending on credit for lifestyle, keeping up with others, paying for Christmas, holidays, cars beyond your budget, gadgets or anything that is not absolutely essential. I was brought up only buy a thing if you can afford it now and allways put something away for a rainy day. Too many today think they are entitled to everthing others have plus more and have to learn the hard way.

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