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

posted by in Client stories

Today we’re honoured to welcome Lisa, also known as @CoffeeCurls, to MoneyAware. From the lows of being in severe debt to finally paying the debt off with help from StepChange Debt Charity, this wonderful article about her own debt experience was originally posted on her own blog. It’s well worth reading.

Debt file

If you’re in debt and feel that you need some help, I hope that reading this will reassure you and offer some useful suggestions. It depicts how 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.

At the time, bankruptcy was completely taboo. I have to say if it happened to me now, rather than then, I would have given serious thought to going bankrupt. Even in 2004 (when the after-effects of bankruptcy were much harsher) every debt advisor I spoke to told me to file for bankruptcy.

I knew we had debts, money had been somewhat scarce for several years as he had been frequently ‘off sick’ with a bad back and depression. I’m ashamed to admit it now but it just became a way of life.

Only a small amount of debt ever got repaid.

We had re-mortgaged the house several times, once to consolidate all the debts, except that when the money came through he managed to convince me that he NEEDED some tools (although only expensive ones it seems), that he DESERVED a PlayStation, an Xbox and some games, and some new clothes, and we NEEDED a brand new lawnmower.

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

I stood at the checkout in Tesco more times than I care to remember with flaming red cheeks when my debit card was rejected, having to then try and work out how much to ask the checkout lady to take off before the card was tried 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 him 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 to use for shopping I was stunned to see there was no money available – when I checked further I saw 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.

Debts

Below is a list of the debts I was left with (and how much it actually cost me to repay them). 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 of debt. 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, utterly non-judgemental and helped me set up a payment schedule, paying £1 a month to each company.

StepChange Debt Charity agreed with CAB. I was embarrassed about speaking to them as I thought they would 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 and not deem me to be a bad person.

I didn’t answer my home phone for several years unless I was expecting a call, as most of the time 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, meaning that it was 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 but 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!

Under the rules of joint and several liability the debt companies had the legal right to pursue me for the entire debt. They chose to do that as because as a mother of two young children I was an ‘easy target’, threatening phone calls and visits from big scary men terrified me.

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 is 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 will 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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  • Annie

    Can’t tell you how much hope has been given to me reading your article, I have been working with StepChange online and have already spoken to creditors and have had payment offers accepted for the time being, foolishly on my part got involved in overspending and credit cards (not for the first time but have always thought I’ve found a way out stupidly taking on more debt in the longrun) I tried to keep a couple of cards going but again had a couple of knocks and out they came, only have myself to blame, will also have to contact these, but where I felt embarrassed a couple of months ago sorting things out it now depresses me to have to speak to someone else (any one I have spoken to have always been very nice), thinks the thing is me admitting and facing up to things, but what really worries me is that a creditor may demand I sell my property total debts probably amount to between 20 – 25k but only a couple being just over 5k couldn’t live with myself if this happened to my family, if I keep paying the amounts as agreed with my creditors would they be likely to try and do this?

  • Ben

    Hi all, Ben here. Just wanted to let you know how I dealt with my credit card debts so that it could help anyone else to stop worrying about theirs. Essentially I created around £70,000 worth of debt on Credit Cards and Personal Loans, when I foolishly got involved with Online Poker, whilst having a bad relationship with my GF at the time and not recognising I was drinking too much to cope. So, I quit the destructive ex (debt not her fault but needed to reduce the stress triggers), stopped drinking, and got healthy. To stay focused it helps to get relatively fit, or do something new (even a 20 minute extra walk per day, to start, so you know you’re on a new path) as it will keep you mentally strong, then you can do anything. So down to the debts; Download a Budget Sheet from one of the Free Debt Helplines, and complete it with your ins and outs. 1) Write one letter to each of your Creditors showing the total debt you owe, and your ins and outs so they can see you have no extra income remaining after you have paid essential bills (mortgage, gas, electricty, water, food, Childrens Presciptions etc). 2) Ask them to Freeze the interest on your account, and confirm this in writing (only ever deal with letters, phone calls are worthless for agreements). 3) Inform them you are happy to set up a nominal payment of £1.00/mth so they know you are still in contact. 4) The ones that agree, set up that payment straight away to replace the existing payment with them, if there is one set up. 5) Have a walk around the block and a cup of tea (not wine) when you get back. Well Done!

    The next part now you’ve managed to control the debt, is not to start any more (that’s a given) but slowly and surely you will be able to pay these off, one at a time for a reduced amount. Essentially the longer you maintain the token payment the less they will settle for eventually once the debt has been sold on a few times. (You be the boss now) I’ve got some debts that are around 8 years old now since the Default, still paying the token payment, but have settled on 6 out of the 10 Creditors for between 25% to 40% of the original debt owed. Trying to get the last few down to 20% but not fussed if they don’t agree, they will eventually. If you do pay any off down the line then make sure you get it in writing that they agree not to chase the outstanding amount and that it’s given as a Full and Final Settlement. There are standard letters you can use on the National Debtline website. Keep copies of all the settlement confirmation letters in case the resell the debt and ‘accidentally’ try to ask you for it again. Had this with an Abbey Loan, but sent them a ‘Copy’ of the original and they said oops ‘their bad’ They’ll try it on, so keep your paperwork safe, once you’ve agreed and settled down the line.

    Anyway, that how I did/am doing it as personal arrangements. You can forget about them then until you have a bit extra saved and then can approach one at a time.

    Hope this helps you to take control. They’ll not try to take you to court to issue CCJ’s if you’re paying a gesture payment already and can show that’s all you are able to. Might be that a standard debt plans is also suitable, so do speak to a free professional if you want a shorter route, just saying what I did.

    All the best, Ben

    • Sueb

      Ben, this has given me real hope. I am in a very similar situation. I have over £30k debts with about 6 creditors, which were taken out around 11 years ago when my then husband persuaded me it was a good idea to go and live abroad with no income. I started paying a nominal £1 payment to each creditor about 6 years ago, when i finally had the courage to through my husband out (we were paying about £50 between them before, interest frozen and living back in the uk). To this day I pay £1 a month each. I work full time, bring up our daughter on my own with no financial support from him and he has moved abroad. I have no assets, pay no pension contributions and live in a privately rented home. Your advice has given me a real feeling that actually I can sort this out once and for all. Thank you

    • moneyaware

      Hi Ben,

      Thanks for sharing your story. It good to hear that things have worked out for you.

      I’d echo the message at the end of your post, where you recommend people get free professional advice before taking action to deal with their debts. We can help with that. There’s more information here: https://www.stepchange.org/Howwecanhelpyou/Debtadvice.aspx.

      One thing I’d like to correct is about CCJs. I’ve spoken to many people over the years that have received CCJs despite making small regular payments to their debts. It’s probably less likely than if you ignored a debt but it is still possible to be taken to court.

      It’s also not usually advisable to pay creditors £1 a month and to save up to make settlement offers. We’d usually only recommend paying your creditors £1 a month if the rest of your money was needed for essential living costs.

      There’s more information about making settlement offers on our main website: https://www.stepchange.org/debt-info/settlement-offers-to-creditors.aspx.

      Kind regards

      James

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  • It seems totally overwhelming but that is great advice from Ben. There is a lot of help out there and it is a big burden to carry solo. However, being a tough nut and also I used to be in business, I chose solo. Becoming a christian in May 2007 I have relied on the Lord’s strength to get me through. He even game me a dream about 3 snakes chasing me and one was lying down with me and the next day I got 3 debt collection letters, one really bad! This really helped. It has been a big and constant burden but there is light at the end of the tunnel. In fact, I’ve just about cleared all of it that is reasonable, some I wouldn’t even know who the money is owed to, some is paid back at £1 by a court order (it will be cleared in 2093), some is statute barred. This year £34,004.22 has been settled, largely by paying it off but still there is some remaining.

    I had debts so big and varied I literally found it very difficult to track all of it from multiple sources. Basically I ran a business with my ex and it went under, as did our relationship. I found out I wasn’t even a shareholder director despite thinking I was a partner in the business. This turned out to be a good thing as when she went bankrupt it was all on her. Post the split I still had the house I lived in and my job so I remortgaged the house to get into property. I put £10k on a house that never got built with the company going bankrupt. At the same time I got the stupid idea of buying a house in Spain I was going to rent out to make money. BAD IDEA! I did make some rental but not enough. I had to get 2 further secured loans against the house to pay Spanish IVA tax (didn’t see that coming) and other ongoing expenses. Basically, I was now into debt at 130% of my house value UK and maxed credit cards. I also lost my good job and tried to go into business again, really making a pittance. May 2008 saw everything crash totally – up until this point I was making all the card and loan repayments around £2.5k a month. Totally unsustainable.

    Then it was into hiding basically, big debt collectors knocking on the door, phone calls, virtually daily letters. I did not answer the door to anyone or only took calls from mobile from known numbers. I just prayed on my knees at my bed while debt collectors were at the door. It is frightening and constant pressure, this is what debt collection companies are good at. Some advice: if you do make £1 settlements, which I did, I now have a problem that it is not statute barred. If I had not paid, it would be. However it is a dangerous game to play as some companies will take you to court. One company secured £6k debt against the house, I didn’t even bother going to court (now paid). The other secured loans I tried to work out repayments but didn’t make enough money.

    In 2010 I had a change of career and fortunes. I made a deal with FirstPlus for £5k to settle the debt. They agreed but never took the charge off the house (this came back to haunt me – but nailed them). They still sent letters saying I owed £9k! So don’t think that these companies are going to do what they say. They aren’t. Also moved out of my house to shared accommodation as I’d started living and working elsewhere. Fortunately the companies froze interest. I rented out my house as I couldn’t sell it with all the charges. I had a bad tenant for 4 years with ad hoc rent and the house ended up being badly damaged to add to my woes. Eventually I decided I’d had enough. I was making enough money to live on but not to really clear any debt so I got rid of the tenant after paying for court action.

    This may seem counter intuitive but for this amount of debt I had to think outside the box. I started another career which meant I got some money and a grant (teacher). I decided to put £10k into doing the house up and rent it properly. That was hard going, I originally only budgeted for £5k. Stuck with not being able to sell, I tried renting again but (un)fortunately another bad tenant moved out within a week. By this time the bank on the original and 2nd mortgage decided to pull the plug and repossess. I didn’t fight it. The investment in doing it up made sure it got a good price and to be fair the bank sold it properly. Now if I’d have used the 10k to pay off debts I would still owe around £50k as the house would have sold for a heck of a lot less it was a dump. So you have to be tough and make good decisions.

    The money was forwarded on to the chargeholders of the property. Good old FirstPlus came back again and took their share, despite it being settled. I wrote and explained I had settled and threatened to go to the Financial Obmudsman. They agreed to send the money back, which they did, and a small amount of compensation. The second Welcome debt was over £20k but they stupidly sold the debt on prior to this and would not tell the solicitors who they had sold it to. So it was basically stuck in limbo for 6 months. Finally got sorted and the sent it onto the 3rd company. However, they also had the money from FirstPlus which came back still sat in their account for 6 months. I had to complain 5+ times until they actually did what they should have and sent it on.

    So this is how the debt got paid/settled this year of around £34k, I’m free of the primary and secondary mortgages and 3 lots of secured debt. There are still a few old credit cards around, some are now statute barred (which I explained to a threatening solicitors letter – never heard back). Looking back I could have gone bankrupt in 2008. A debt plan was out of the question as it was well over £20k and also secured. I’ve heard every letter/threat/been to court but really you can’t be made to pay more than you can afford despite what companies will try and tell you. However, I did want to try and clear the debt in a reasonable manner it’s largely worked out better than I could have hoped or prayed. I have settled in full on the major accounts, with every penny paid. My credit file is still shot due to repossession etc. but in time it will be better. I’ve learned patience is definitely required I can wait another 5 years to have a good credit rating as I live well below my means now.

    So don’t give up is the first thing. Keep meticulous records and if you send anything, use recorded delivery. Only deal in writing. I have noticed that there is a change in attitude in the industry in general and the collection companies are much more reasonable these days. Get advice and make sure it’s the right advice. I lived with this alone and handled it all myself, I am now married but I’ve never involved my wife with any part of the debt (not incurred by her or with her) but been honest. Live below your means by taking drastic and sustainable action. Be tough and think outside the box. There are lots of stories of people doing additional jobs, there are always solutions to every problem. Be solution focused. If you focus on the debt you will just think ‘I’ll never pay this off’. Don’t. Also think long term – just imagine if you do get to a point where you are paying off debt, once it’s cleared you will have excess money. Don’t spend it, start saving/investing! Lastly my life has really changed from the inside out since accepting Jesus all those years ago. That is the true source of my strength.

    • If you include the 1st and 2nd original mortgage in those figures (around £90k) that means a staggering £124k worth of debt has been settled/paid/finalised this year. A miracle.

    • moneyaware

      Thanks for sharing your story Richard.

  • I was also in credit card debt to the tune of $ 2500. This debt was the reason of more expanding than my limits. Later on I made up my mind to clear all this debt and in future not to depend on this unnecessary headache. So I controlled my expenses and after payment of all the debt amount, I also destroyed my credit cards. Now, I am feeling much relieved and have made up my mind not to get indulge in such debt and to spend more than my limits.

    • moneyaware

      Hi Camila,

      Great to hear that you’re on top of your finances now and things are easier for you.

      I think that getting out of debt can be a chance to learn about managing money, living on a budget and staying out of debt once you’ve cleared off the old debts.

      Kind regards

      James

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  • Momina Lqbal

    I’m MARY GIBSON from New York United States. I lost my job few months back after my divorce with my Husband. I tried everything positive to make sure i take good care of my kids but all failed, and i was in debts which makes everything worse. I was kicked out of my home and i had to live with my neighbor after pleading with her to allow me stay with her for some days while i figure out how to get a home which she agreed, but no one was willing to help anymore. I was given these contact by my friend, these person helped her with an ATM CARD A BLANK ATM CARD, I was excited about this AND ALSO SCARED I MAY GET CAUGHT, then I contacted the hacker HE TOLD ME ABOUT EVERYTHING AND HOW THE CARD WORKS ITS SO SAFE. I had just $400, so I pleaded with them to help me because of my condition but they never accepted, so I managed to a pawn a few things and got $600. I ordered the $10,000 card and I got my card delivered to me by a courier services 4 days later. I never believed my eyes! I was excited and upset as well, I managed to withdraw $2000 on the ATM and $2500 the second day. I went to walmart and a grocery and bought a couple of things for $3000. The card got blocked the third day and I contacted them and I was told its a mistake from my end. I’m so happy, I have started all over again and have a good apartment with my kids, i used these to contact the Hacker alexandratikerpuu1@gmail.com

  • Momina Lqbal

    I’m MARY GIBSON from New York United States. I lost my job few months back after my divorce with my Husband. I tried everything positive to make sure i take good care of my kids but all failed, and i was in debts which makes everything worse. I was kicked out of my home and i had to live with my neighbor after pleading with her to allow me stay with her for some days while i figure out how to get a home which she agreed, but no one was willing to help anymore. I was given these contact by my friend, these person helped her with an ATM CARD A BLANK ATM CARD, I was excited about this AND ALSO SCARED I MAY GET CAUGHT, then I contacted the hacker HE TOLD ME ABOUT EVERYTHING AND HOW THE CARD WORKS ITS SO SAFE. I had just $400, so I pleaded with them to help me because of my condition but they never accepted, so I managed to a pawn a few things and got $600. I ordered the $10,000 card and I got my card delivered to me by a courier services 4 days later. I never believed my eyes! I was excited and upset as well, I managed to withdraw $2000 on the ATM and $2500 the second day. I went to walmart and a grocery and bought a couple of things for $3000. The card got blocked the third day and I contacted them and I was told its a mistake from my end. I’m so happy, I have started all over again and have a good apartment with my kids, i used these to Reach the Hacker alexandratikerpuu1@gmail.com

  • john

    Well after working from leaving school, and never having to worry about money, things turned on there head when I became disabled due to ill health about 12 years ago . This led to a divorce loss of my house car ect.

    This brings it up to present day where I am living on disability and benefits (which is quite an eye opener considering I used to pay more tax and Ni in a week than what I get to live on now for a week) Needless to say I have racked up £10k on a credit card just trying to live.

    I’m trying to keep up my repayments but it’s getting to the stage where I feel like i’m slowly going under and it is starting to effect my life .I dont know which way to turn and feel so stupid for having got myself into this mess……..

    • moneyaware

      Hi John,

      We speak to people in similar situations on a daily basis. Many people think that reckless spending is the main cause of debt, but actually it’s more likely to be unavoidable life-changes like the ones you’ve experienced.

      We can help you work out your options on how to deal with this particular debt and any others you may have. You can get our help by either using our online advice tool, Debt Remedy, or by calling our Helpline. There’s more information here: https://www.stepchange.org/Howwecanhelpyou/Debtadvice.aspx.

      Kind regards

      James

      • john

        Thanks for the reply, due to go into hospital again for yet another op soon.

        As soon as i’m out I will be in touch to try to sort this life sapping debt out. I know it’s my own fault but you have got to eat and pay the bills, shame I have got into debt just trying to live…….