One of the things that strikes people as most shocking when they are new to the consumer debt field is that 5 in 6 people who are over-indebted and struggling to make repayments do not get help. The implied question is, why on earth wouldn’t you seek help when your debts are overwhelming and a source of debilitating stress and anxiety?

Part of the answer is, of course, obvious. Services are patchy. And while it seems sensible that they are centrally located - to share the benefits as widely as possible - the reality is that in poor areas, that leaves those most vulnerable without help. In one of the areas of Liverpool where Just Finance work the cost of getting the bus into town and back is £5. When every pound has to be accounted for, that’s simply too high.

This is why local Just Finance staff work with money advice services to increase their capacity, and by training specialist volunteers, create local pop ups and branches.

However, the barriers are more profound. We know from direct experience as well as research studies that money remains one of the most highly stigmatised topics to talk about, and a lack of money creates all sorts of contortions:

Soured friendships as people conserve cash and can only see a night out as a no-go activity. Unplanned long-term unemployment and low self-worth when the barrier of investment in mandatory accreditation or insurance leads to lower-skilled and fitful work. Fractured relationships and entrenched depression as debts mount up and promises are broken. These are just some examples of the ways money hurts, and each provides clues as to how a new set of circumstances can lead to lifelong blight.

Why should we talk about money?

What’s to be gained by getting money out in the open? We learn of a wider range of ways people manage their money and cope with shortages. Our Cash Smart Credit Savvy course is full of money saving behaviours, but in truth, it’s just like a good working over with the most switched-on friend who’s pulled together all the tips and tricks they, and everyone else they know, knows.  This kind of conversation supports prevention – sensible spending, putting something aside for the future – and can help people avoid making problems far worse, for example, by paying far over the odds in interest on credit.  

We also hear about options. We need to evaluate them, sure, but over time we can observe what seems to help and what doesn’t. We have an opportunity to test our own choices and have our judgments challenged. Critically, we can work out who is sympathetic to our worries and lift the lid on the pressure and self-criticism that take over our thoughts when we are struggling.

It is common that people grapple with money problems for months or even years before they ask for outside help. As research has shown with other resources such as foodbanks, advice services are often approached only as a last resort. A sense of personal failure and shame are incredibly powerful forces.

However, with a relational approach, this is what JFF seeks to invert. By making talking about money a norm, as well as training concerned individuals to spot problems early and introduce alternatives, we aim to stimulate a healthy and sustainable shift in the climate around money. Research by the Young Foundation identified that people’s family and friends are by far the greater source of information and influence on our choices of financial services, and this is where JFF intervenes.

If we listen carefully, that shock at the number of people who don’t get help can also imply value judgments. Are (poorer) people really that foolish that they don’t act sooner? But when we design services in the voluntary and community sector, it’s worth asking what is different about the people we wish to serve and what we share in common. If we reflect on our own decision-making, and heed the findings of behavioural economics, we’ll recognise all of us are highly influenced by friends and acquaintances. They are the ones who make us feel our actions are justified and who give us confidence we are doing the right thing. As people sometimes point out, poor people are not stupid, they are poor.

We hope the value of a relational approach gains greater recognition and is more widely adopted. Livelihoods and lives depend on it.

Rowena Young, JFF executive Director

Want to know more?

Could we do more to empower people with direct experience of living on a very small budget use their money management skills to help others and their community. Read the story uncovered by Alison Tsang, Just finance worker in London.

For more on what we’ve learnt about how churches can raise the issue of money through a joint research project between the Centre for Theology and Community and Durham University read this blog by David Barclay.

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