I was in debt a long time ago. I’m not even sure of the exact figure I owed. I remember it being huge. So big, there was no chance of paying it off. I didn’t have a job. There was no money coming in and it felt impossible.
A couple of months ago, my boyfriend was going through years of my old paperwork and found a letter the debt collection company sent me, with the actual amount. I was blown away. All that sadness for such a small amount.
It wasn’t very much. Not to me now. The truth is, how bad a debt is is often completely subjective. I’ve met people with 30k debt, paying off just the interest, where it didn’t bother them, while others owed £1500 and it was killing them.
So even though the size of the debt wasn’t all that much, it felt like the end of the world to me. It led to my mental health being affected as well as me becoming homeless, sofa surfing while trying to look for jobs on a library computer.
Even though this arguably small debt was an issue 10 years ago, it still affects me today.
Before I start…
I’ve not written this post to try to get you to feel sorry for me. I don’t feel sorry for me. I’ve got a good life with money, savings and no debt.
I also am very aware because of the work I do that there are people suffering with debts right now. I want to tell you that you’re not alone. I wish I knew all those years ago how much free help was out there.
I’m sharing this because dealing with debt can be traumatic. It has stayed with me for over a decade and it means I behave in certain ways, to this day, which are not helpful.
Being aware of those unhelpful things, and coming up with a plan to deal with them has helped me – and maybe it will help you.
Some quick resources:
- In debt? SERIOUSLY, no matter how big or small give the Money Advice Service a call and they’ll be able to help you out. Call them now. It’s free – so what have you got to lose?
- I wrote this guide about money and mental health, it links to loads of places where you can get help
- If you’re feeling like you’re really struggling, give the Samaritans a call. I’ve used them a few times and it’s been really helpful. I know people think it’s just for those who are thinking of hurting themselves, but no, they are there if you just need someone to talk to too.
Here’s my story – the parts I’m willing and able to tell you anyway.
I graduated in 2009 (yep, the year the recession happened), moved to London with a law degree in hand because I was going to be some brilliant rich lawyer, or business person like in The Apprentice! ha!
I did everything right growing up. I’d been smart, got good grades, never got into trouble (well never got caught! 😉 and was brave enough to go out and try and get what I wanted.
I moved into an expensive flat in Notting Hill with friends with some savings, and all I had to do was get a job. But yeah – there were no jobs. Really.
Slowly, all my savings went, my overdraft that was maxed (I had two!) was ignored and I had to sign on. It was OK at first.
It was quite fun actually. I was living in Notting Hill with friends. We’d go to Portobello Road most days and talk about the things we’d buy and do if we had money. We were ‘doing it’.
Signing on at the jobcentre (aka visiting hell)
I’m not going to lie – I was pretty arrogant. Signing on wasn’t for people like me. It was for people like in that Channel 4 programme Benefits Street. Remember that?
Not a girl with a law degree, who played in orchestras and went horse riding as a kid! This was a mistake. All I needed was a chance and I was going to get that job, house, life that was destined for me.
I tell you what, my first visit to the jobcentre really brought me tumbling down to earth with a thump. It is the worst place in the world.
They didn’t care I was bright, funny, destined for great things – they treated me like I was always lying, trying to con them, lazy, stupid – a failure.
The first day there I was told that they aren’t there to help me get the job I thought I deserved, just any old job. And as I applied for cleaning roles, I knew they were right. It’s not like I was arrogant enough to think they should only be supplying me with £30k plus roles – but I can’t deny it crushed me. I was no longer on the path I thought I was on.
It didn’t help that the security guard would letch at me and wouldn’t leave me alone. I hated going. I dreaded having to pass him at the door, to then try and prove I had applied for enough jobs.
When most people think of what a homeless person is, they think of those poor people sitting in doorways, begging for cash. That was not me. I was part of the hidden homeless, sleeping on sofas and in spare rooms for around eight months.
This bit was not fun. There wasn’t heating, warm water or internet connection most of the time. It was at this point my mental health started to suffer.
It was the injustice of it all. I had a bloody law degree. I was applying for jobs every day.
I’d be sending off my CV in the hopes of nabbing a graduate job while crying on the phone to the bank who were charging me £30 because I had gone over my overdraft limit by £2.
I got a job and then lost it
At the jobcentre, thanks to a scheme that made you work to get your benefits I got a job in central London, working in an office.
It was in Holborn – so by the high court, surrounded by lawyers. I felt like for the first time in ages I was on the right path again.
It felt amazing. Sure, I was only earning my benefits, but I felt as though I was getting my dignity back. The Jobcentre had given me money to buy clothes, so had nice things I could wear so I didn’t feel out of place.
Then about a year in, the company lost a government contract and people started disappearing from the office. I got called in one day, and I just knew it was coming. It happened, and I sobbed in the street outside the office.
You know, not dainty crying either. It was years of build up coming out at once!
Then there was an incident and I gave up. I left my boyfriend in London to ‘sort it all out’ and moved back to Wales, crying the whole time to stay with my parents. I couldn’t do it anymore.
I got better
I got better at home. My boyfriend managed to get us our own place (I say that, was still living with six other strangers).
I felt better. I felt like I could try again. It was a fresh start. I was lucky enough to be able to do an unpaid internship for a month down the road for a non-profit, with my boyfriend’s wage (while he travelled four hours a day to work). The company covered my costs, and we were SKINT, but I needed to give it a shot.
It was brilliant. Back in an office, and getting some skills I could put on my CV (while nicking toilet rolls from the office because we had no money). One of the ladies there spotted a job at MoneySavingExpert.com and told me that I should apply.
I had become REALLY good with money, and became obsessed with the site. I didn’t have a lot of cash, but I knew how to make it go far – and I knew where all the freebies were hiding.
Also, the CEO knew someone who worked there, who gave him a call and said I was good. (Yep, life works like that I’m afraid) and I got an interview… and my money saving career began.
Life now – and my debt scars
You know, I’ve achieved more than I ever thought I would. I’m pretty proud of myself.
I have a brilliant job that pays me well and I get to help others. I have an award-winning blog. I write for magazines and papers. I’ve had some incredible opportunities.
But I do some strange things when it comes to my finances – and it’s because of my past.
My debt scars
- I don’t open letters – I can’t do it. I pile them up unopened and they go in a box when the pile is big enough. This drives my boyfriend mad, and because I trust him, I let him sort my paperwork out/open my letters. If you’re someone like me who struggles with this, be really careful with who you let have all your personal details. He will hand me letters which I NEED to deal with, and file away other things while saying ‘This is from 2009 Charlotte, bloody 2009!’ ha!
- I don’t answer the phone – Unless you’re in my phone book, I’m not answering the phone to you. I probably won’t even listen to the voicemail you left. I know it’s dumb because don’t have people chasing me for money anymore – but I just don’t. I don’t really have a great solution here other than desperately trying to Google the calling number before it hangs up, and also telling people I am dealing with to email me to set up a phone call so I know who and what to expect on the other end.
- I compulsively check my bank account – If you invite me to the pub, I’ll log into my banking app to make sure I have money. There have been TOO many times in my life my bank card has declined and I want to protect myself from that humiliation.
- I worry about losing my job every day – Every damn day. Numerous times a day. Starting my blog was the best thing I could have done because it gave me control. Now if I were to lose my job, fine (well, it’s not fine – but you know what I mean), I could still pay the bills.
- I’m anxious around money – I know I have a tax bill coming up, so I haven’t spend a penny of what I earned last year on my blog – JUST IN CASE. I’m constantly squirrelling away money – JUST IN CASE. I need to put an extension on the flat, but have avoided getting a loan to do it for two years – because – what if everything went wrong and we couldn’t pay it back?! As much as these are very sensible, I don’t really enjoy the money I have.
- I go through periods of overspending – When I’m feeling low or stressed, I can spend days/weeks manically online shopping. It makes me feel better for a bit, but then I return everything because well – it doesn’t help does it?
I have good scars too!
Without all of this, happening to me, I wouldn’t have the skill set I do now, to do the work I do. Helping others with money.
I’m financially better off because of not having anything in the past. I never want to be like that again, so my anxiety makes sure I’m protected.
Most importantly for me, I have a level of empathy for people I didn’t have before.
- I know it takes just WEEKS to become homeless from living completely normally.
- I know that people in the jobcentre are just like me and you – they aren’t lazy bums.
- I know how hard it is to walk into a job centre when getting out of bed feels like the hardest thing in the world.
I know that a kind word and a helping hand can mean the world and really change a life.
So thank you to everyone who did help me through those years!
Do you have debt/poverty scars? Let me know.