ALT HED: The Young People Living in Secret Debt
What's It Like to Be In Debt and Not Tell Anyone?
During university, Dalia* had no problems with money. Every term, her student loan would come in, and she could easily live off it. After she graduated, things started to change. She was struggling to adjust financially after her student loan payments stopped. Soon after she left uni, she went through a difficult breakup, making it harder to keep up with the jobs she found. As a quick fix, she got a credit card. When that maxed out, she got another. And another. Things got worse. But the people around her had no idea.
“I’m in a lot of secret debt,” Dalia, who’s 25, tells me over the phone. “It's been almost two years. I think I'm in about £17,000 or £18,000 [of debt]. Everybody knows I’m poor and struggling and really living paycheque to paycheque but nobody understands why.”
Secrecy around debt is making young people today feel lonelier than ever. The feeling of shame associated with debt leaves many withholding that information from the people close to them. Research from 2018 by the Money Advice Survey found that 51 percent of people didn’t want to talk about their debt to their friends and family so as not to worry them, while 32 percent of young people said they don’t have the confidence to speak to their loved ones about their finances. As a result, young people – who are statistically likely to be more lonely than any other generation – are feeling even more isolated by their debt problems.
Dalia says she cannot face telling her family, as it would expose the extent to which she has misled them already. “I feel like it's gone too far to be like, 'I have like five loans and four maxed-out credit cards and my income is way less than my outgoings’,” she says. “It's awful. It's been absolutely detrimental to my depression because I feel like I’m constantly lying to people, and I’m just drowning.”
Will she ever tell them? “I'm somehow trying to get through it myself,” she says. “I've felt really embarrassed.”
Most debt advice services encourage people to communicate about their worries to solve issues of loneliness around debt. Iona Bain, who runs a specialised financial advice service for millennials called Young Money, says that speaking to someone is the first point of call for dealing with debt: “In the very first instance, talk to the Samaritans if you need someone who will just listen,” says Bain. “Friends and family can be well-meaning but judgemental or unhelpful without realising it.”
“Ultimately, people who can help are debt charities like Stepchange,” adds Bain. “They have a debt repayment tool that takes 20 minutes on their website, and you don't have to speak to anyone if you're not ready for that yet.”
It also might be worth reaching out to your bank and seeing what they can do, says Bain. “Banks and lenders also now have an obligation to make sure you're not in chronic, life-ruining debt as a result of new reforms to overdrafts and credit cards,” she explains. “You may not realise it but the regulator makes it clear that nobody should be in a position where they are on the edge. So level with your bank and ask what they can do for you. You may be surprised.”
Even with a debt plan, being able to talk openly about money problems can be a challenge – especially when those debt plans aren’t working. Mark*, who’s 30, is in around £40,000 of debt. His family have no idea, and his partner believes that he’s been managing it with payment plans.
“It all started around ten years ago when I was at uni,” he explains. “I had some severe depression and anxiety and basically drank every single night for three years. I was also on the rugby team so that didn’t help with staying in.”
As the years went by, Mark’s debt increased and he struggled to tell people about it. “I feel incredibly sad that I feel I can’t have a conversation with my parents about how much debt I’m really in, and I’m worried about what my wife will think when she finds out I haven’t really been dealing with it.”
To add to the isolation he feels from his family and parter, the inability to socialise has left him struggling to make social connections. “[My debt] has made me feel lonely due to the fact that whenever I have attempted to deal with it, it leaves me with no money whatsoever to get by and have any form of social life,” he adds. “I’m no longer on speaking terms to what was a very close group of mates I grew up with.”
While many withholding information about their money problems from friends and family, those who have eventually opened up have found it incredibly helpful. For Max*, it took him years before opening up to his partner around debt. “I just had in my head that people didn't talk about it because everyone had it,” he tells me over the phone. “That started to change when it built up a bit more when it went from ‘nobody talks about this’, to ‘I don't want anyone to know about it’.”
It wasn’t until a conversation with his girlfriend about holidays that he managed to open up about his financial situation. “The only person I've told is my partner who I've been with for six years,” says Max. “Even then it took me two and a half years to actually tell her about it. She was harbouring ideas about going on holiday [and] It just got to a point when I just started crying, and I told her I couldn't afford to do any of these things.”
“In my family, you don't tend to talk about these things a lot,” adds Max. “Before I told my partner there was a lot of distance.”
Ultimately, with young people facing a lifetime trapped in expensive rent cycles, expected to make less money than the generation before them, it’s no wonder that financial issues are prevalent. When young people are feeling loneliness and ever, secret financial worries imbued with shame are only making things worse.
Even though Max isn’t sure he’ll ever tell his parents, telling his partner was a huge weight off his chest: “You don't realise how much of a burden you're carrying around on yourself until you open up to someone about it,” says Max. “[Telling someone] totally lifted a weight off.”
*Some names have been changed.