Millions of adults in the UK could be sitting on a secret debt mountain that they are hiding from their family and friends, new research shows.
Nearly half of all adults (44%) are hiding an average debt worth £4,164 per person from their family, partner and friends, according to the Money Advice Service (MAS).
This means that the total hidden debt for UK adults could be as high as £96 billion.
The findings have been published as part of Talk Money Week – a public awareness campaign running until 18 November designed to improve people’s money management skills and financial wellbeing.
Caroline Siarkiewicz, head of debt advice at MAS says: “Sometimes it can be easier to pretend everything is alright and avoid opening up about our debt problems to escape the tough conversations.”
She adds: “Not because we want to cause harm, but because we want to shelter those closest to us from our problems or are concerned about being judged. However, this rarely solves the issue. In fact, it often makes things worse.”
The poll of more than 4,000 found that almost a third (29%) of those in a relationship say their other half does not know about all the money they owe, while 5% admit that their partner is completely in the dark about their debts.
Men are less likely than women to talk about debt, the research suggests.
As many as 50% of men admit that their close friends don’t have a clue about their debts, compared to 43% of women.
The largest source of hidden debt comes from credit cards.
Personal loans from a bank or building society, an overdraft, money owed to friends and family and store cards follow were also found to be common sources of hidden debt.
The taboo around debt means that thousands of Britons are keeping it secret from their loved ones.
Many of those with debt say that they don’t want to burden others with their financial issues.
The research found that 51% say they would prefer not to talk to their friends and family about it because they don’t want them to worry. Almost a quarter (23%) say they don’t have the confidence to speak to their loved ones about their finances and this is particularly the case for young people (32%).
Ms Siarkiewicz says: “Debt can be a particularly difficult topic to broach, especially if you’ve fallen into a spiral and don’t know how to get out of it. But sharing a problem is the first step to solving it - it’s always better to be open with your loved ones when it comes to money.”
She adds: “As it’s Talk Money Week, there is no better time to start opening up about your finances. Whether with friends and family or a partner, use this week to talk about your money worries. And remember that free and impartial debt advice is available near you.”
Spotting the signs of problem debt
The signs someone is experiencing problem debt are often difficult to spot. They may be hidden due to embarrassment, to protect friends and family from the situation or because they ether don’t realise or want to confront the full extent of the problem.
While signs will vary for each person, there are a range of physical, emotional and behavioural symptoms which can give friends and family subtle clues about behaviour which seems out of character.
These signs could include:
- They have been in debt in the past
- They have had a recent life event – an event that has resulted in a loss of income or higher spending for example having a baby, being made redundant, illness, divorce or a death in the family.
- They are living beyond their means or over spending – they always seem to have the latest ‘must have’ items although they don’t have the income to cover this.
- They seem anxious, withdrawn or depressed – they have reduced time socialising, they are avoiding friends.
- They may seem more secretive – starting to hide issues and avoiding talking about finances.
- They have changed their spending habits – either reducing spending or overspending.
- They seem tired or are having trouble sleeping.
- Their weight has changed suddenly – either increasing or decreasing.
There are three simple steps that friends and family can take to help someone who might be experiencing financial difficulties:
1) Start a conversation – Use your own personal experiences to help get to the bottom of their financial worries, make sure you keep the conversation neutral and non-judgmental.
2) Talk to them about free debt advice – Help your friend or family member to understand that free debt advice will help them get their finances back on track. Ask them to make a commitment to seek free debt advice. You could also offer to help them by going along with them
3) Use the Money Advice Service – Encourage them to use its debt test to help them resolve their money worries and find free debt advice in their area.