Eight million people need debt advice support

29th February 2024

More than eight million people across the UK need to get debt advice and over 12 million more live on the edge, new figures from the Money and Pensions Service (MaPS) have revealed. 

Using its survey of 22,519 adults, conducted in July-September 2023, MaPS has calculated that one in seven people (15%, 8.1 million) require expert advice to deal with the money they owe. 

People in this situation have debts that could seriously affect their lives, such as mortgage, rent, council tax and utility arrears. Many will have seen creditors start enforcement proceedings against them, such as contact from bailiffs, legal action or pre-payment tariffs for electricity and gas.  

The research also shows that another 12.6m people (one in four adults, 24%) are now at risk financially, meaning they’re struggling to keep up with bills and borrowing commitments, using high-cost credit or unable to afford food or essentials. 

Combined, this means over a third of the UK population (39%) either need debt advice or are at risk of needing it soon. Among the 8.1 million who already need it, people are more likely to be young, lower earners and in temporary jobs. 

More than half (55%) are 18-34 years old, despite that age group only making up 27% of the population. Three quarters (73%) earn less than £30,000 a year (vs. 49% of the population), while 27% work in temporary jobs like Fixed Term or Zero Hours contracts (vs. 13% of the population). 

MaPS says that debt advice can be “truly life-changing”, but the survey also reveals that less than half (44%) of those who need it had taken it. Of those who had, a quarter (26%) said they still waited more than 12 months between starting to struggle and finally seeking help. One in eight (12%) waited over three years.  

Fear, embarrassment and being unsure where or how to access it, are all barriers to people getting the help they need, says MaPS, while others become overwhelmed by their situation when they start to think about how to deal with what they owe. 

In reality however, people will remain in charge of their own decisions if they get advice. They won’t be judged and contacting a debt advice organisation to find out about their options won’t affect their credit rating.   As a result, MaPS is urging them to follow the path that thousands have already taken and go online to find free debt advice.  

Anna Hall, Head of Debt Operations at the Money and Pensions Service, said “These figures show the chasm between how many people urgently need debt advice and the number actually taking it. This means millions are currently battling on alone without the help they so desperately need.”

“Debt problems can have a corrosive effect on someone’s relationships, self-confidence and mental health, and every expense can ratchet up the anxiety. It can eventually lead to the disconnection of utilities, legal action and even homelessness.”

“Many people wish they’d acted faster, but no one ever says they got debt advice too soon.”

Commenting on the MaPS findings, StepChange Chief Client Officer Richard Lane said “MaPS is right to draw attention to the fact that taking debt advice can be truly life-changing. Our clients routinely tell us this, and often say they just wish they had sought help sooner. We measure wellbeing as well as financial outcomes, and find that after debt advice both typically show considerable improvement. But the barriers to taking advice are very real and very deep-rooted, and part of our collective goal must be to tear them down.

“But clearly, far too many people aren’t getting help – or all too often don’t even know that free, impartial support is out there. For anyone experiencing financial difficulties, our message is clear. Help is out there. You don’t even have to talk to anyone if you don’t want to – at StepChange, for example, you can undertake debt advice and explore possible solutions online, and just finding out your options won’t affect your credit record. So there really is no harm in taking the first step – it could prove to be a positive experience that could ultimately lead you to becoming debt-free.”