Jonathon works in our Helpline but before he became an advisor he was on the other end of the phone. He’s currently on a debt management plan (DMP) with StepChange Debt Charity, and wanted to share his story in his own words – how he got into debt, the impact it had on him, how he got help and how he’s now helping other people that are struggling with debt.
It’s a great story and shows how debt can affect anyone. If you find that you’re situation is similar to Jonathon’s you should get in touch with StepChange Debt Charity for free debt advice.
How I got into debt
I can remember exactly how I first got into debt, it was when I got my student overdraft. The advisor in the bank told me to take out the overdraft, stick it in a savings account and then pay it back when I graduated. It sounds like a great idea at the time but of course I started dipping into the savings and pretty soon it was gone.
I don’t blame the advisor but I wish it hadn’t been so easy for me to get that debt. When you’re a bit younger it can be tempting to go mad, when you first get access to credit. A lot of the debts I’m dealing with now are ones I got when I first left university.
From university I had some ups and downs. I started off in investment advice for a pension advice company – for six months. I didn’t pass my probation so was out of work in February 2009, just as the economy tanked.
I did a variety of jobs over the next few years but for various reasons they didn’t quite work out for me. All the while I’d taken out loans to cover living costs because my monthly budget was getting too much to handle.
When I knew I needed help
My partner and I mentioned our financial issues to my son’s health visitor and she recommended we get in touch with StepChange Debt Charity. This got me thinking, so I went onto MoneySavingExpert.com and googled ‘debt advice’ to find out more.
One of the things that was most useful was reading the website and finding out what creditors can do. It was useful to know that the creditors might complain and add some fees on if we reduced our payments.
I was worried about getting County Court judgments (CCJs) but I read up online and saw that as long as you’re making an effort to pay what you can it’s fairly unlikely. Obviously these things can still happen but I know that I’m doing my best with the creditors so the courts aren’t likely to worry.
I was scared of the consequences of a DMP, so was reluctant to get advice. It seemed too good to be true, the possibility of stopping interest and bringing down charges. We felt there must be some sort of fee or some hidden feature like we’d be tricked into bankruptcy.
“I kept telling myself before I phoned: I hadn’t been reckless with my money – the debt had just accumulated over time. It was just a sequence of bad luck.”
When you’re in debt it can be hard to know where to turn. It took quite a few recommendations before I came to StepChange, so it’s important to let people know about the help that’s available.
Debt doesn’t just happen in a bubble
I thought I had to sort it all out myself, so I didn’t initially look for any help. There’s no reason to feel ashamed for needing debt advice, if you’re struggling it’s completely understandable to reach out for help.
I was able to get help fairly early on, got on a DMP and started moving forward before it got out of control. Having been through this myself, I’ve got a lot of empathy for people who are in similar situations. I can see how debt can affect your mental health as much as anyone.
I had depression in the past on a couple of instances. I won’t say debt was the primary cause but it was certainly a factor. It can be a bit of a chicken and egg scenario, where the debt feeds the depression and the depression makes it harder to deal with the debt.
Debt can feel like a trap – if you’re not happy at work and you’ve got debt then you feel like you can’t move on. It ties you down and feels like an anchor around you.
I feel better now. I went to the doctor, I wanted advice on how to get better. I was given a mild dose of antidepressants and took an online course of CBT. With that support and the medication I was able to start making plans and move forward. I was able to get out of the depression.
It was a valuable experience because it’s made me realise that no matter how bad you feel there’s a way forward. Even when it feels helpless and nobody can make things better, you start to understand why people can feel so bad.
Debt doesn’t just happen on its own either, there’s real life going on around it. Quite often on the Helpline we help people deal with their debts but then also refer them to another partner we work with to deal with some other issues, such as Relate for marital breakdown, Samaritans for emotional support or Shelter for housing issues.
Being on a DMP
I said earlier that I worried that DMPs sounded too good to be true. Now that I’m on a DMP I know that it’s not a magic solution. It’s not always easy but it’s been a positive thing because it’s meant I can repay my debts in a way I can afford.
I called the helpline and went through my details over the phone when I was on my lunch hour. I spoke to the debt advisor the next day. That’s when they recommended the DMP and talked me through all the other options. I sent in the paperwork, wrote to my creditors to inform them and the DMP went from there. It was simple to set up.
I like the fact that it’s so flexible. My second child was born in April this year and it’s brought more pressure to my finances. I called and we adjusted the budget to take this change into account and the creditors have all been very understanding so far.
“Lots of people fear the effect a DMP will have on their credit file but I wasn’t too worried about mine because it was already pretty bad at the start!”
I know it’s not great now but once the debts are cleared it’ll hopefully start to pick up.
I still get the odd letter, I got a default notice sent the other week but that’s not something that bothers me too much these days.
Offered credit while on a DMP
It’s strange but even now I still get offered credit, usually from companies with astronomical interest rates. I obviously avoid these but I know how tempting it can feel. Before being on a DMP I used payday loans to get me through, but I know now that using them can be such a slippery slope.
When you’re really up against it, it’s a very tempting offer. The terms are not good, they charge an awful lot but if you need it to get through and you don’t feel like there’s another option then it’s something many people will end up doing. It’s just these types of debt tend to make things worse.
Applying to work at StepChange Debt Charity
StepChange Debt Charity was something I wanted to be part of. I had a very positive experience as a client. I always got the feeling that the charity knows what it’s doing; it’s a nice place to work and I wanted to be part of it.
I noticed a job advert one day when I was looking at my account. Then I thought I’d apply and the rest is history. I find meaning in working for StepChange Debt Charity, I enjoy being here and I’m helping people. You can’t ask for more in a job.
I can’t remember the person I spoke to when I first came for advice. I was so focussed on my debts that it’s hard to remember. There’s every chance that someone sat near me in the office was the person that took my call.
It’s a different sort of job here. You’re not just mindlessly chasing targets; you’re trying to actually help people. Some people don’t think they can be helped, so I try to be positive and let them know that we’re there for them and will be able to suggest option to deal with their debt.
Working on the Helpline and being on a DMP
I hear a lot of similar stories to mine when I talk to clients. Eventually people come for help when it gets unmanageable. Hearing some of the situations people are in when they call makes me realise that my situation could be worse – whereas before I thought I had more debt than anyone!
The culture in the Helpline department is absolutely great. Everyone is so friendly and easy to talk to. This job is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I get a little boost every time I help someone. I can understand it so much more, having been through the process myself first.
We’re regularly looking for new people to join our team, check out the StepChange Debt Charity jobs website for the latest vacancies.