Debt: ‘The first step towards change is admitting you have a problem’ | Money

A little over a year ago, 30-year-old Clare Seal was £27,000 in debt, and in denial.

Ten years of living month to month, two pregnancies and a “Pinterest-perfect wedding” had caused her to lose her grip on her family’s finances – and avoiding the issue was easier than asking for help.

Calls from the bank were diverted to voicemail. Letters piled up, unopened. Her rock-bottom reckoning, in March 2019, revealed £25,000 of credit card debt, a £2,000 overdraft, and no accessible savings.

At the time, she was a social media manager, her husband works in hospitality, and their joint income was £64,000.

Desperate to break the cycle of debt, but too ashamed to ask her friends or family for help, she started @myfrugalyear on Instagram and posted a screenshot of what she owed.

The account was anonymous, but it felt like radical transparency from a woman who had until then been unable to confront the state of her finances. “The first step towards change is admitting you have a problem,” she wrote in the caption for that first post.

Fourteen months later, @myfrugalyear has almost 50,000 followers – and Seal is celebrating what would have once seemed an impossible milestone: paying down £10,000 of debt. “It feels a lot lighter,” she sighs with relief by phone from Bath.

Now self-employed as a copywriter, she cast off her anonymity earlier this year to share what she has learned in a book: Real Life Money, billed as “an honest guide to taking control of your finances”.

Waiting until she was back in the black would have made for a tidier narrative, she agrees, but she hopes that sharing her story now will inspire others to act before their debt spirals any further out of control.

“A lot of financial advice from people who have come out the other side can feel a bit smug and unattainable when you’re still in it and feeling very sensitive. What I really wanted to do is write the book that I needed to begin with.

“If what it takes for other people to be able to be more open is for me to come out and say ‘I was in this position, these are the mistakes I made’, I’m fine to talk about it.”

According to the Money Charity, the average credit card debt of each UK household is £2,595. But figures tell only part of the story of someone’s relationship to spending and saving. There are so many contributing factors – including personality and upbringing.

“At a certain age it becomes very apparent who got a good financial grounding from their parents – which is a privilege in itself,” says Seal. “Whereas you could be from a family where there was loads of money about but it was just never talked about, so you don’t have a clue what you’re doing. All of these chasms start to appear between us and our friends and our families, and they just grow bigger.”

Ever since she was a child, Seal has been inclined to spend, especially during times of emotional upheaval. When her father died, leaving her £10,000, the then 20-year-old Seal spent most of it on a holiday to Bali.

With the exception of her wedding (which, though far from extravagant, cost about £15,000), she amassed credit card debt through mostly small buys, such as houseplants and cushions – especially those she saw on Instagram.

The app encourages spending, by both targeting ads and inviting comparison with others. “Caring too much about what other people think about you can be a massive financial burden – that’s always been a massive problem I’ve had,” says Seal.

“If I could have caught myself earlier, that’s what I would say: how you and your life look to other people is not worth sacrificing your financial wellness for.”

Her social media-driven spending peaked over the summer of 2018, when she was on her second maternity leave, and especially susceptible to the pull of Instagram “tribalism”.

“A new baby can be a really isolating experience,” she says. “If you’re shown loads of women wearing a certain jumper, or carrying a certain changing bag, it can help you to feel part of something.”

While Instagram may have exacerbated her money problems, it also provided a path out of them. Starting @myfrugalyear not only removed the temptation to spend, she says, “it helped me to get over some of the shame that I felt about having projected a life that was so different to what I was living.”

Within six weeks, @myfrugalyear attracted 10,000 followers wanting to break the silence around debt, sharing experiences and support.

The online community has helped to tackle her debt. By tracking her family’s finances on an app (she uses Money Dashboard) she was able to set a weekly budget. Small changes, such as planning meals in advance and secondhand shopping, have made a big difference, allowing the family to reduce their debt by between £500 and £1,000 each month.

Stories of personal finance are often framed as individual triumphs or failures, out of context from structural factors such as government austerity and stagnating wages, or personal circumstances such as illness or leaving an abusive relationship.

Seal is careful to make the distinction between being broke, as she was for many years, and being poor – the latter being much harder to lift yourself out of by belt-tightening alone. “I haven’t had to do that climb out of poverty. There are so many factors in that, barriers that shouldn’t exist.

“For me, it’s about personal accountability and responsibility. For some people it’s not.”

Other forms of privilege, such as race and gender, are also relevant – as demonstrated by recent data showing that BAME women in the UK are already suffering greater financial and psychological consequences from the coronavirus pandemic than their white counterparts.

But among people who do earn a living wage, she has learned “you’re at just as much risk of having a really difficult relationship with money if you’re earning six figures, as if you’re earning £40,000. You can’t earn your way out of a bad relationship with money.”

The persistent moralising around money prevents many from seeking help, sometimes with tragic consequences. A 2018 report by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute found that people with problem debt were three times more likely to have considered suicide.

The statistics are “horrifying”, says Seal – and evidence of the real toll of financial difficulty, and the shame surrounding it, on mental health. “I guarantee that for a lot of those people there was help available if they had felt able to open up about it.”

Her goal is to help people to get a grip on the “emotional side of finance” so that the subject becomes less loaded.

The message may be especially relevant now, she says, given the consequences of coronavirus for the economy. With her husband furloughed and her own work insecure, they may be slower to pay off their debt than they had hoped.

But the experience of reckoning with her finances has left her better placed to cope with the uncertainty, she adds. “All I can do at this point is be really glad that this did not happen last year.”

Real Life Money: An Honest Guide to Taking Control of Your Finances by Clare Seal is out now

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org

Five switches to live frugally

• Rather than buying new, I automatically check eBay and Facebook Marketplace to see if I can find things secondhand – you can pay a fraction of the price.

• Check to see if your bank will refund late payment and unarranged overdraft charges, especially if you’ve been experiencing financial difficulty. They might be able to refund up to 12 months of charges, which can be a much-needed boost.

• Inquire about your interest rate on borrowing. By reducing, or freezing, interest, you can save more than £100 a month on large balances.

• Use a switch service to keep on top of your bills. By getting the best gas, electricity and broadband deal, you can save hundreds a year.

• Audit your subscriptions. Get rid of any you aren’t using (especially at the moment). Often if you go to unsubscribe from services like NowTV or Audible, they’ll offer you a slashed price to tempt you to stay.

— to www.theguardian.com

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