Chris Sutcliff

Artist Man I am
22nd Oct 2017

Surviving Debt

I hate money. To clarify; I hate the stranglehold it has on people. I panic about squandering my savings before I can travel with it, a privilege really, because I used to panic at the amount I owed out. That was my life for twenty years. I had to end my debt before it ended me; here’s how I did it.

At 19, my Dad bought me my first car for driving to university and a credit card for buying petrol which he reimbursed at £80 per month. I lacked the maturity and responsibility for that to work out. Cards feel less real than money and they promote a sort of financial amnesia. You want a thing, and with a sliver of plastic that thing is yours and then you forget it ever happened. Gradually that credit card got used on anything I desired, and neither £80 per month or my part-time wage could keep up. I did not tell anybody this was happening, it barely even registered with me, it’s just how I lived and it slowly worsened. The rising numbers on my statements didn’t seem real either, so I continued without consequence into recklessness. One credit card became two and I maxed them both out. I got an overdraft to pay them off, then couldn’t get out of the overdraft. I got a loan to pay all of that off, then went straight back into the overdraft and racked up more debt on the cards with the loan on top. I consolidated all of that into a single, much bigger loan, and then started the whole process again. Within a few years I hit £16,ooo worth of debt where I stabilised because no one would lend to me any more, and settled into a cycle of minimum payments at maximum limits for years. Debt is not about the amount that you owe, but your relative ability to pay it back. I was never paying it back.

Living in debt is horrible, it’s a prison cell that you carry everywhere, a tremendous weight that you constantly strain to bear. I suffered from a persistent sense of dread that culminated periodically in panic attacks that would wake me in the night, gasping into the darkness like a hooked fish. I didn’t know how I was going to keep a roof over my head or feed myself. Every expense, bill and bank charge was suffocation on a loop, every knock at the door was a threat. I experienced a crippling social inadequacy, a continually demeaning avoidance of situations that required money, like going out with friends, and I lied about why because I was so embarrassed by my situation. This extended to lying to my parents because I didn’t want to let them down. I was unable to be generous so I felt miserly and unkind. Several of my relationships collapsed because of all this, I drained them of all support and myself of all respect. I felt undeserving of help because I knew I had caused the whole catastrophe myself. I don’t know how long I was treading water for, or how long I intended to try, until it all went from bad to worse. One day, the day after payday, I went to the cash machine and I had no money left. The entire month’s wage had vanished immediately on bills and rent and I stared blankly at the screen as tears rolled down my face. That was rock bottom. That was the moment I knew I had to turn my life around.

A friend referred me to a charity called Step Change (link below) and I signed up to their 5 year debt repayment plan. I hadn’t even conceived of the notion that there are companies who help people out of debt. They were friendly to deal with and the plan was manageable, so for the first time in a long time I could breathe again. Starting that program was the easy part, but debt is not just the money you don’t have, it is the habits you have created. If I didn’t make significant changes to my habits I would never climb out of the hole. I knew it would be challenging, but I wasn’t expecting it to be life changing. I sold my car for less than it was worth even though I was still repaying it, but then I started to walk everywhere and that made me fitter and less angry. I had to wear hand me down clothes because I couldn’t afford new ones, including office wear that didn’t fit, but that made me humble and less image conscious. I had only a few pounds per day for food, so I became a much more intelligent grocery shopper, bargain hunter and soup maker. I stopped buying any luxury items like books and DVD’s, and only spent money on either sustenance or experiences, which changed my whole view about what money was for. Most importantly of all, I started to say no to things. If something was unecessary, I politely declined it, and I learned to be thankful for what I already had. These weren’t just good lessons, they were a better way to live, and they forever changed what I meant when I said I ‘needed’ something.

The steps I took really only worked for me because I was never out of employment, had no dependants, and had fantastic friends and family around me. So what I have to say will not work for everyone, I’m sorry. If you are in a similar situation to the one I was in, here is what I have to offer you:-

  1. Admit you have a problem. Treat debt like you would an addiction*, you can’t tackle it until you accept it.
  2. Tell your support network. They’ll want to be part of the solution and not the problem.
  3. Get help and commit to it, whether it’s with a charity like Step Change or any other approach.
  4. Change you language by including your debt in the amount of money available to you. Stop saying ‘I have £xx left in my wage’, replace that with ‘I have minus £xx in total’. That will remind you not to blow money on a whim just because it’s in your wallet. It’s not your money.
  5. This last one is kind of dumb, but it worked so well I still use it today. On a daily basis, divide how much money is left in your account by how many days there are left in the month, use that figure as your maximum spend for that day, or less if you can manage. That way you’re in constant control of your money, aware of your reserve, and you’ll eliminate unnecessary expenditure.

In November 2014 I made my last payment to Step Change and my bank account finally reached zero; I could not have done it without them. In the end I paid back over £20,000 including all the interest and bank charges accrued within the 5 years, which is a staggering amount and highlights the fact that the lenders are not at all interested in anyone getting out of debt once they are in, it truly is a well laid trap. My life was made awful because of debt, but it has been made infinitely better as a result of going through it. So I cannot bring myself to regret the experience, in fact, I am thankful for it.

I hate money. That will never change, but I understand and respect it now. That’s a way better position to be in.


*I made a comparison here between debt and addiction which I feel is important. Clearly no one is addicted to being in debt, but the ability to spend money that isn’t yours on whatever you wish without immediate consequences is highly addictive. This is why getting out of debt begins with changing habits as well as adhering to a clear plan under the supervision of a support group. Addiction does not care what the drug is, nor should we.

by Chris
Posted in Words

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