Research by the Stepchange debt charity has found that almost one in five people who have taken out a high-interest rate, sub-prime credit card were unemployed at the time it was issued.

Around four million people have a sub-prime credit card (defined as cards with an interest rate APR of 30-70%). The research found a strong association between sub-prime cards and problem debt – with three quarters (79%) of the charity’s clients with a sub-prime card saying it had a detrimental effect on their financial situation. This is at least partly attributable to the way firms market and operate the cards.

StepChange identifies targeted actions that the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) needs to take on sub-prime card practices – such as setting higher compulsory initial minimum payments on new cards, strengthening affordability assessment requirements, and banning unsolicited increases in credit limits – to reduce the likelihood of people getting unnecessarily caught in an expensive debt spiral.

The research title ‘Red Card: Sub-Prime Credit and Problem Debt, draws on national polling undertaken by YouGov, as well as a survey of StepChange clients. It identifies a mismatch between how people anticipate using the cards and how they actually use them. Taking this together with the very high cost of using sub-prime cards for long-term borrowing, the end result is that people often find themselves stuck in a high cost debt trap.

StepChange CEO Phil Andrew said “Our research points to a vicious circle. If you’re in debt you’re quite likely to take out a sub-prime card; if you have a sub-prime card it’s quite likely to exacerbate your debt. Given the strong link between sub-prime credit cards and problem debt, it’s time for the regulator to take specific action in this part of the credit card market.”

“The fundamental design and operation of sub-prime cards needs to change, and that’s why we’re calling on the FCA to take targeted steps on sub-prime cards, such as increasing the minimum balance payment level to at least 3% on new cards. If people are stretched, financially vulnerable, and sometimes desperate, then of course they’re going to turn to whatever short-term means are available to help them cope. Yet far from being a lifeline, sub-prime cards currently are often a very expensive debt trap in the long term – sometimes far exceeding the costs of payday loans.”

Around a third of people with serious problem debt have a sub-prime credit card (32% in the YouGov survey, 39% in the StepChange survey). Many people are already experiencing financial difficulty at the time they take out a card. The YouGov survey found that 25% were experiencing some form of financial arrears at the time they took out the card. In the StepChange client survey, 47% said this was the case. 18% said they were unemployed at the time they took out the card.

Sub-prime credit cards tend to be targeted (online, by post and via on-street marketing) at people with low incomes, who are unemployed, or who have an impaired or thin credit file. “Push” marketing features strongly in the decision to take them out. While often marketed as “credit builder” products, the StepChange client survey found only 1 in 10 of those with such a card used it for that purpose in practice – though twice as many had intended to.

Most StepChange clients surveyed with a sub-prime card already had at least one mainstream credit card. 79% of clients had more than one card, and a third (33%) had four or more cards. Among clients, the charity often sees an “escalating cost” pattern, with people taking out more expensive cards as their financial circumstances worsened.

Two thirds (68%) of StepChange clients with subprime cards said they had used more credit than they expected, driven primarily by resorting to “desperation credit”. There were often differences between the way people intended to use the cards, and the way they ended up using them in practice: for example, people were more likely than they intended to use their cards for everyday living costs (26% expected to; 37% did), but less likely than they intended to use the card to improve their credit score (19% expected to; 9% did).

Even sub-prime credit cards have a comparatively low cost of borrowing if paid off promptly. Borrowing £500 and repaying it over three months at an APR of 35% would cost £25 in interest payments – cheaper than the typical high cost short term credit alternatives of around £140-£260.

The problem is that sub-prime cards are not, in practice, necessarily used as short-term borrowing facilities. 66% of StepChange clients said they usually make minimum payments.

The costs of making only minimum payments can be very high. There is a striking difference in terms of total cost and repayment period to have a higher minimum balance repayment requirement.
• On one popular card, paying the minimum payment of 1% of the balance plus interest on £1,000 at an APR of 35% means someone would repay the balance through the persistent debt pathway required by FCA rules over 72 months and pay £1,130 in interest charges.

• Another popular card requires a minimum payment of 3% of the balance, which means someone repaying the balance through the persistent debt pathway would do so at a total cost of £674.

• If the minimum payment were 3% of the initial £1,000 balance (and fixed at this level each month), the debt would be cleared in two years at a cost of £353.

StepChange recommendations the design of sub-prime credit card products creates or exacerbates debt problems for financially vulnerable people. To protect financially vulnerable borrowers against products that exploit behavioural bias and lead to unreasonable and harmful costs, policymakers should take a preventative approach.

StepChange therefore calls on the government and the FCA to

  • increase statutory minimum credit card payments for new cards to the level required to clear debt without excessive cost
  • Strengthen creditworthiness and affordability assessment rules for revolving credit to ensure the rules work effectively for sub-prime productsc
  • Make it compulsory for firms to implement new tools to make the cost of borrowing more transparent and accelerate repayment among those who can afford it.
  • End the use of unsolicited credit limit increases, and require firms to use an opt-in system for credit limit increases
  • Examine and act on consumer harm linked to so-called credit builder products through the recently commenced credit information market study
  • Explore backstop measures to address excessive costs by suspending interest charges for consumers in persistent debt and limiting the cost of credit to 100% of the amount borrowed, in line with comparable high cost credit products