How I went from £36k in debt to being back in black

Today we’re honoured to welcome Lisa, also known as @CoffeeCurls, to MoneyAware. From severe debt worries to finally paying it off with our help, this wonderful article was originally posted on her own blog. It’s well worth reading.

If you’re in debt, I hope that reading this will encourage you to get the help you need. I went from being £36,000 in debt and on the verge of depression and bankruptcy, to being ‘back in black’.

In the summer of 2004 my husband left me. He left suddenly (the night before our youngest son’s 3rd birthday). I had no warning of this and, although people find it hard to believe, I had absolutely no idea that it was going to happen.

I knew we had debts. Money had been tight for several years as he was ‘off sick’ with a bad back and depression. Even in 2004 (when the after-effects of bankruptcy were much harsher) every debt advisor I spoke to recommended it.

I knew we had debts. Money had been tight for several years as he was often ‘off sick’ with a bad back and depression. I’m ashamed to admit it now but it became a way of life.

Only a small amount of debt ever got repaid

We had re-mortgaged the house several times. Once was to roll up all of our debts in a consolidation loan. When the money came through he convinced me that he NEEDED some new, pretty expensive tools. He also said that he DESERVED a PlayStation, an Xbox and some games. Not to mention the new clothes and brand new lawnmower he felt entitled to.

His attitude to money was always bad. Even when he wasn’t working he’ d think nothing of spending £5 on a PlayStation magazine. To add insult to injury, he’d then say that we couldn’t afford branded nappies.

pile of credit cards

I still feel the burn of shame in my cheeks to have my debit card rejected at the supermarket checkout. This was mortifying still when I had to try and work out how much to take off the balance before using the card again.

Once when I stood there having given back bubble bath, washing powder and tea bags, I was still £1.27 short. As I looked at the rest of the shopping trying to work out what else I could live without, the man behind me paid the difference. I was so embarrassed that I don’t even know if I thanked him.

My mum set up a bank account

She started paying £20 a month into it and said it was for me to treat myself with. I didn’t tell my husband about it. It didn’t seem deceitful as I only ever spent the money on food shopping anyway. Once when I went to withdraw the £20 I was stunned to see there was no money available. I soon realised that the £20 had already been withdrawn.

I asked him about it, he said that found the card in my purse and we’d needed milk so he took the money out. The pin was my birth date – he had guessed it. From then on he would wait for that £20 to land and whip it out straight away. He often drove to the cashpoint at just gone midnight to make sure that he got the money.


Below is a list of the debts I was left with (and how much it actually cost me to repay them). They were mainly overdrafts and credit cards. I also had a mortgage shortfall and debts related to my husband’s business.

This is just from the paperwork that I can find now. I think there were more:

  • Nationwide negative equity £12,000 (paid £4,600)
  • Halifax overdraft £1,555.54 (paid £1,150)
  • Barclays business overdraft £1,840.69 (paid £921)
  • Barclays overdraft £974 (paid £750)
  • Barclaycard £2,292.35 (paid £1,375.41)
  • Debenhams store card £2,635 (paid £2,355)
  • Dorothy Perkins store card £1,435 (paid £910)
  • Capital One Visa £879 (paid £425)
  • Capital One Visa £1,529 (paid £1,100)
  • Business loan £5,000 (paid £2,000)
  • Woolwich overdraft £1,841 (paid £1,400)
  • Alliance & Leicester Loan £1,428.71 (paid £800)
  • M&S store card £893 (paid £715)
  • Thames Credit £932 (paid £800)
  • Welcome financial services £781.20 (paid £781.20)

As you can see, even with just the debts that I can remember, I was left with £36,016.49 to pay off. By negotiating with each creditor it only cost me £20,082.61 to pay off. (Although I’m pretty sure the total amount I spent paying off debts was closer to £28K so there must be a few that I’ve missed.)

It took me 6 years – the last debt was cleared in February 2010

My divorce solicitor told me that I wouldn’t be able to assign any of the debts over to my ex. She advised me to go bankrupt. In retrospect I should have sought more advice on this. The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) were very helpful and utterly non-judgmental. They helped me set up a payment schedule, paying £1 a month to each company.

StepChange Debt Charity agreed with CAB. I was so embarrassed about speaking to them. I thought they’d ask me what I’d spent the money on but they didn’t. They just listened and helped. It was like a weight being lifted off my shoulders having someone listen to my dreadful secret. I was never once made to feel like a bad person.

woman on phone while sat at laptopI didn’t answer my home phone for several years unless I was expecting a call. I was always afraid that it was a debt company chasing money. I still find it hard to answer it even now. Some companies are OK to deal with but some are terrifying.

What makes it even more complicated is that most companies sell on debts. This made it almost impossible to keep track of who I had paid what to. I’m quite sure that I repaid some of the debts twice! For example – the £1,840 debt to Barclays was at one point being chased by five different companies. FIVE! All five companies claimed theirs was a different debt and that I HAD to deal with them.

Sometimes they phoned, sometimes they wrote, sometimes they sent bailiffs round. Mostly it was a combination of all three methods. Like most of the debts, this particular one was a joint debt so I gave all of them my ex’s details too. However they very blatantly told me that it was easier to pursue me for the debt as he was hard to get hold of!

Learn from your mistakes

Now, six years on, all my debts are repaid and my credit file is clean. I can’t tell you how happy I was recently to see that my credit score is now 999!

I would also suggest taking precautions (not that kind…) when you enter into a new relationship. Think very carefully before opening a joint account – do you really need a joint one?

Don’t put credit in your name if it’s for someone else, however much you love them. Would you be happy to accept the debt if they left you with it? That may sound cynical but it isn’t. It’s sensible, it’s practical and it will protect you.

A frightening number of people go bankrupt more than once – don’t be one of them. Live within your means, be proud of knowing that you can afford what you buy and teach your children the value of money.

My main message is ‘live within your means’ such a simple concept, yet so many of us fail to do it. Don’t ignore your debts. They truly don’t go away they just get bigger and more unmanageable.

Here are my tips to get you started on the road to debt recovery:

  • Get a copy of your credit file – this is a huge step towards taking control. Yes, it’ll probably tell you things that you don’t want to know, but do you know what? The debts are there whether you acknowledge them or not!
  • You can get a free trial from Experian, Equifax and Call Credit so you can view your credit file
  • Get an A4 ring folder and some dividers and make a file for each debt, then make an appointment to see a debt adviser
  • DO NOT PAY ANYONE TO ‘SORT OUT’ YOUR DEBTS! Talk to a FREE advisory service like StepChange. Either phone them or email them ASAP. Tell them you are experiencing financial difficulties. Tell them your income and your outgoings and make sure you include everything that you have to pay out for. They will help you.
  • If you have some money to repay a debt, don’t offer to repay the full amount. Always offer a reduced settlement figure – 99% of the time they will either accept it or negotiate.

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Posted by in Living with debt