Life

Less Money More Problems: I'm Swimming in Debt Even Though I Have a Job

Our new economics columnist Grace Blakeley helps a reader who feels trapped by his debt.
11 February 2020, 9:15am
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Grace Blakeley gives her thoughts on life under capitalism that hopefully won’t make you feel desperately alone. Email lessmoneymoreproblems@vice.com with your queries.

I’ve got several thousand pounds in overdrafts, credit card debt, and other loans. I’ve also got to save up to pay tax on my freelance work, which will set me back several thousand pounds. I’ve almost saved enough, but I’m still a few hundred pounds short. There are loads and loads of numbers going around my head every second of every day and it’s stressing me the fuck out.

I’ve set up a budget and left a small bit of money for “fun” every month – whether that’s going out, buying something nice or whatever, so I don’t get really depressed. By my calculation, it’s going to take at least a year of shit living, if not more, until I’m near to being debt free. Am I fucked? Is there something I can do to spread out the debt? I’ve looked into consolidation loans, credit cards, etc, and it’s so overwhelming. I also don’t want to mess with my credit score, which at the moment is "fair".

I can’t stop thinking about this every day, how terrible the next year is going to be, how crippled I am. I work a full-time job and shouldn’t be in this position, but this is exactly where I am, and I need to know how to deal with it!

Thanks,
Jack

Hi Jack,

The first thing to say is that you are not alone – millions of working people across the UK are facing the twin curses of rising debt and insecure employment.

Since the 2007 financial crisis, young people have been attempting to make ends meet in the wreckage of a broken economy, coping with high debts, high rents, stagnant wages, and an insecure labour market. The average worker is no better off today than they were in 2007, and unsecured debt – like credit card lending – is the highest it has ever been.

The Resolution Foundation has shown that millennials are likely to be the first generation since 1881 to be worse off than their parents. And while 1881’s kids probably had their problems, they didn’t have to worry about climate change ending civilisation.

You’ve probably seen young people being derided for spending too much on avocado on toast to save up for a house, unlike their responsible parents. But the only reason many boomers were able to “save” so much money is that they rode the wave of a property and financial boom that ultimately led to the financial crisis. Unable to benefit from the pre-crisis boom, it is us millennials who have been left to bear the costs of the bust.

The government’s response to the crash was austerity, and look where that got the country. That was an ideological choice, and that ideology is also behind your debt problem. The ideology that drove austerity, and that is causing so much hardship for people all around the country, is that debt repayment is the single most important responsibility of any individual or society. Feeding children, investing in infrastructure, saving the planet from irreversible catastrophe – these small matters can wait until those all important debts have been paid off.

Modern, financialised capitalism works by feeding off our guilt and fear. You feel like you can’t buy yourself something nice or go out with your friends because you are made to believe that your single greatest responsibility is working hard to pay off your debts. This constant anxiety is terrible for our mental health as workers – no wonder poorly paid, precarious young people experience such severe mental health problems. But it works very well for the people at the top, who make their money from our hard work, our rents and our interest payments.

Dealing with this stuff can be profoundly isolating – that’s the point. It serves the interests of the powerful that those who struggle with debt are made to feel anxious, depressed and ashamed. It’s not hard to see why an exploitative system like capitalism thrives off our isolation from one another. If we felt connected to one another, we might start to realise that we can work together to make things different.

In the short term, you can speak to Citizen’s Advice, which provides support in dealing with “problem debts”, but long-term the only sustainable way to reduce any debt burden – whether public or private – is to increase incomes. That’s why austerity didn’t work, and it’s why you’re struggling so much now – you’re not doing anything wrong, it’s just an impossible situation.

If understanding this makes you angry, then the best way to respond is to join together with others who have faced similar problems. Is there a union in your line of work? If so, reach out to it. If not, you could join a general union, which may also be able to provide you with advice in dealing with your debts and support in your relationship with your employers. By engaging with the labour movement, you’ll not only increase your power relative to your employer(s), you’ll also find support and solidarity from those who have faced similar struggles.

The powerful want working people to feel powerless in the face of a system that treats them as though they are only worth as much as their next paycheque. "Can’t pay your debts? Try being less lazy." But they know as well as we do that no amount of extra work or saving can change the way the system works – only by coming together, realising our collective power, and demanding change can we fix our broken economy. The most important thing to take from this experience is that you’re not alone, and that things do not have to be this way.

@graceblakely