Four million Britons using credit as 'safety net'

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More than four million Britons are using credit as a financial safety net to meet their everyday living costs, emergency costs and to cover one-off purchases, according to estimates from StepChange Debt Charity.

The charity said the majority of people turning to credit just to get by are in work and on low and middle incomes.

It made the four million estimate from a survey of more than 3,000 people, of which 8% were found to be using credit as an everyday safety net for bills, emergencies and one-off costs.

This 8% of people met three criteria - that they had borrowed at least occasionally in the last year to pay essential household bills, that they would find it hard to raise £200 to £300 in an emergency without borrowing the cash and that they would find it hard to save £500 for a special purpose.

Meanwhile, an estimated 13 million Britons, or 27% of those surveyed, said they would find it had to raise £200 to £300 in an emergency without borrowing the cash.

And an estimated 19 million Britons, or 39% of those surveyed, would find it difficult to save £500 for a special purpose.

Around a quarter of the four million people estimated to be using credit as a safety net are from the most "financially excluded" groups, the charity said, meaning they can find it harder to access mainstream lending products. People in this group may include those on low incomes, in casual work, on state pensions and those who are unemployed.   

The charity suggested that a "micro loan" scheme should be set up by the Government and banks. A similar scheme in Australia has provided low income households with no-interest loans, it said.

It also said more should be done to encourage people to build up a "rainy day" savings pot. The automatic enrolment scheme placing people into workplace pensions could be adapted to include precautionary savings, it said.

Among the four million people estimated to be using credit as a safety net, credit cards and overdrafts were found to be the most common types of debt, used by 63% and 41% of people respectively.

StepChange said while many people find these products useful, some can get into more entrenched financial difficulty, with "complex and costly" default fees charged to those who miss repayments.

The charity urged Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to ensure that rules around these products meet the needs of vulnerable borrowers whose circumstances are prone to change. There are also problems around people being able to take out multiple credit cards and digging themselves further into debt, the charity said.

Credit agreements which allow minimum repayments to be made can also turn short-term credit products into long-term and costly forms of borrowing, the charity said.

Mike O'Connor, chief executive of StepChange, said: "We campaigned hard for the reform of the payday loan sector, but it is not enough just to stamp out bad practice.

"People will continue to need credit, but they need affordable and sustainable options they can turn to in times of difficulty.

"The truth is though that sometimes more credit, however safe, is not the answer for people with serious debt problems. We must find alternatives to credit, not just different forms of credit, and provide more support for people to save, especially those on lower incomes."