Credit card gap widens: debt problems are getting worse

Sarah Coles

A new study has revealed a credit card gap is growing, between those who are boring what they can afford - and repaying it sensibly - and those who are letting their borrowing spiral out of control.

The study, by Debt Tracker, identified a group of people who admitted their financial situation was a 'heavy burden', or that they were struggling to keep up with credit commitments. These people are heading into Christmas with an average of £6,114 on their cards - £577 more than this time last year.

They have seen the amount they spend on repayments rise alarmingly. In November they paid an average of £303 - up £65 from the same time last year.

This is an incredible sum - especially considering that the same study found that they were much more likely to be working part time or living on benefits, have a low household income and find themselves short of money.

The concern is that this group of people already stuck in the cycle of borrowing too much and not being able to afford their repayments, and there will be no way out until they simply cannot make ends meet and end up with a debt management plan or bankruptcy.

The other group, who say they use credit sensibly and don't find it a burden, meanwhile, have spent the past 12 months getting back in control of their borrowing. They have seen the amount they owe on credit cards fall £953 - from £3,814 to £2,861. As a result, their repayments have stayed roughly level - at an average of £184 (just £3 more than this time last year).

It shows that not all credit card use is a cause for concern, and reflects the fact that 47% of all cardholders in the UK always pay off the whole amount they have on their credit card each month, and 14% usually pay it off.

However, it shows that a surprisingly large group of people have now started struggling with debt. The study revealed that 30% of people don't pay off all their credit card each month: just what they can afford; while 8% say they only ever pay the minimum amount.

Leo Brownstein, Research Manager at YouGov who ran the study, said: "This debt gap is widening, with those faced with shrinking levels of benefits and on low household incomes becoming increasingly stranded on one side. The greater credit card debt brings higher monthly repayments which in turn means less available money for everyday living expenses. The chances are that this situation will only get worse in the year ahead."

What can you do?

Anyone who uses a credit card should ensure that they have the card that's right for them, so they are not paying a high interest rate on debts they are carrying for months. It's well worth checking the market to see whether there is anything more suitable available to you - although of course switching debt around is not a solution in itself, and needs to be accompanied by sensible steps to tackle borrowing.

Check the credit card options

If you feel your debt is heading towards the danger zone, look for the warning signs.

It's not necessary the end of the world if you don't pay your card off in full every month - especially if you are using a 0% card to spread the cost of a purchase. However, alarm bells should ring if you are not able to afford the sum you had planned to repay.

If you cannot make your planned repayments for a couple of months, or you find yourself repeatedly paying the minimum amount on your card, you need to think carefully about exactly what is going to change in your life so that you can repay more of your debt.

Similarly, if you find the amount you owe growing gradually, then you need to work out why the debt is increasing, and how you can halt the trend and start to repay it.

At any of these stages you can get free debt advice from a charity like StepChange or Citizens Advice. However, at the very least, if you ever get to the stage where the minimum repayment is a struggle, you desperately need to speak to one of these charities, who will talk you through your options and help you decide the best way to tackle your debt problems.

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