Money

I Fell Into £4,500 of Debt While I Was Depressed – Here’s How I Climbed Out

Without having my fees waived, I have no doubt I would still be struggling with the debt I racked up.
December 9, 2020, 9:00am
Gina Tonic debt column
A collection of stories about getting into – and out of – debt.

What nobody tells you about having a nervous breakdown is how much money it costs. When you can’t work, have no sick pay and no rich family to fall back on, the cost of Chicago Town pizzas and the rent for the flat where you lie in bed all day adds up.

It feels worse, looking back on that period in my life, that my money – and my overdraft – weren’t spent on four day seshes or holidays abroad, but instead simply on trying to survive the best I could. My accumulative debt of £4,500 was raised by buying bog roll, multipacks of Skips and paying a phone bill without any income coming in. 

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My problems were spurred on by a number of consecutive heavy duty catalysts. After finishing university in 2015, I moved from my student house to live with one flatmate, who worked nights while I freelanced in the day. Even just losing the routine of the educational system hit me hard. I felt single, lonely and lost without the kind of structure that a real, go-to-work kind of job would have given me. During this time, I also lost my first grandparent and had a major falling out with my immediate family. 

These things are hard enough to deal with on their own, let alone while you have an unstable income as a 21-year-old beginner freelancer who spends 80 percent of her by herself. The funny thing is, going into this situation, I’d already gotten myself out of debt once. 

My student overdraft had been maxed out at £2,000 during my three years at university, but through working full-time in retail – plus a little bit from my low student loans – I paid it off by the end of my degree. I wanted to be in a good place to start life as a real adult, in a career I’d always longed for – writing – and under other circumstances it would have been the perfect situation to build this life upon.

The student overdraft system will allow you to borrow money interest-free for up to three years following graduation. My bank – Santander – was the most generous with its overdraft size, which is why I’d chosen it at age 18. As many students have said of their loans and overdrafts, “It’s free money!” So why not spend it all? Or, in my case, spend it all twice. 

During my time at rock bottom, I inevitably needed more money. Thankfully, after a month or two of spending my Santander overdraft, a friend came over and helped me with the phone calls to the benefits office. I secured myself housing and mental health benefits for the following four months, to the tune of approximately £100 a week (this was before Universal Credit came into play, so my housing benefit was paid directly to my letting agency and I never had a chance to spend it on myself, which I definitely would have done).

The mental health benefit went straight to my bank account, allowing me to use it on bills, groceries and the occasional bag of ket. Although gammons love to point out that you can make ghastly meals for a mere 30p, my benefits did not cover my living expenses. So, as you can probably guess, I got myself another overdraft.

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Because I’d already been banking with Halifax since I was 16, the company signed off on a £1,500 overdraft immediately. And just as immediately, I spent it on the little things that add up. I moved into a new house with more friends, which required a deposit and agency fees. I started to feel better, and needed money to go to the pub and meet up with the mates my depression had stopped me seeing for months. I wasn’t well enough for a job, but I was starting to get my life back on track. 

At this point, I should also clarify that on top of this £3,500 debt, my mam had been lending me the odd tenner and 20 as she could spare it. This was on the condition that I would pay it back, so when I was finally ready to start work, and had got myself a minimum wage job, I promised to send my mam £10 a week to clear the £1,000 of debt I’d accumulated with her. In my eyes, it was better to pay back a real person – a relative, at that – before I faced up to the banks.  

Ten quid a week doesn’t sound like much, but over two years it would add up to £1,040 sent back to my mother: one of my debts repaid. With this goal in place, I felt more confident setting up payment plans for the rest of my money owed. I ranked Halifax as more urgent than Santander because I still had one year of being interest-free with Santander left at this point, while for Halifax I’d been paying £1 a day fees just to have an overdraft. 

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For many, paying off an overdraft means keeping money in your account until the balance is plus and not minus. Knowing my own spending habits, I felt I wouldn’t be able to do this – I’d just spend the money if it was available to me. Instead, I called Halifax and asked for them to automatically decrease my overdraft size by £100 on the same day each month, until it was gone completely. 

What I didn’t realise – until I was candid with the bank teller on the phone about my mental health problems – is that Halifax (and most other banks) have plans in place to help those struggling with repayments.

As well as setting up my payment plan (AKA my lowered overdraft-size plan), Halifax was able to cancel my fees until I paid it off. Because of my bluntness about my suicide attempts, as well as providing the dates of said mental health disasters, Halifax was able to stop these fees due to their own help programme for sufferers of poor mental health. I made sure to make it clear to the bank: if I had to pay the fees, I would never be able to pay off the overdraft, which I think contributed to the final decision to wipe the fees. With the £30 a month I was saving from the £1 a day fees stopping, paying back the £100 to the bank was made all the more easier. 

On minimum wage three years ago, I earned roughly £1,100 a month. Between my mam and Halifax, I was spending £110 on debt payments. Bolstered by the backing Halifax had given me, I called up Santander and arranged the same plan with them. I was surprised that competing banks would have such similar help in place, but they did. The one time Santander charged me – breaking our agreement – I rang up in tears and got not just the charge refunded, but £75 to apologise for the mistake. After two years, I was debt free. I still have the letter marking the end of my debt to one bank framed in my flat.

Because nobody talks about how expensive a nervous breakdown can be, nobody mentions the help out there for those who need it. The more information you can give to your debt collectors, the more they can do for you.

As embarrassing as it was working out the dates of my prescriptions, ambulances and hospital admissions for the bank’s records, without total honesty I would more than likely be totally bankrupt. Without set plans and fees waived, I have no doubt I would still be struggling under the £4,500 of debt I accumulated in the year of my life I lost to depression. 

@GINATONIC