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Progress on debt typically spiky not smooth

New StepChange research points up need for policy to recognise resolving debt is often a marathon, not a sprint

13 February, 2019

Early findings from major new research by StepChange Debt Charity, released as part of the charity’s Debt Awareness Week, show what variations in progress typically arise among different groups of clients as they embark on resolving their difficulties after taking debt advice. Some of these confound expectations.

The new research tracks groups of clients three months, nine months and fifteen months after taking advice, and will be run on a continuous basis, allowing a clearer understanding to be built up over time.

Overall, three months after advice 12% of clients said their debt problem was now completely sorted, with a further 63% saying they had made a lot of progress or some progress. However, 17% said they had made little progress and 9% said they had made no progress.

The clients who are most likely to report progress tend to be those with a positive or balanced budget, whether or not they have other vulnerabilities. It is the existence of a negative budget, rather than the existence of vulnerabilities, that appears to be the more significant barrier to making progress in resolving debts.

Although clients with additional vulnerabilities (such as physical or mental health issues) typically experience greater difficulties than other clients, vulnerable clients with balanced budgets are more likely than any other group to say that their debt problems were completely sorted out at three months after advice, possibly reflecting a greater likelihood of debts being written off. However, the same is not true for vulnerable clients with negative budgets, who make less progress. This group of clients is also only half as likely as the client group overall to say they are dealing better with day to day life than before they sought debt advice (28% of negative budget vulnerable clients, in contrast to 56% of clients overall).

The new research uses the Office for National Statistics personal wellbeing indicators as another way of comparing clients’ experiences by comparison with each other, and with the wider UK population. Reflecting the fact that debt is stressful, StepChange clients’ scores were lower than average and there was a direct correlation between the amount of debt progress and reported wellbeing. When asked “How satisfied are you with life nowadays?” clients who said their debt problem was “completely sorted out” scored 7.8 (out of 10), virtually identical to the 7.7 national average. By contrast, those who reported little progress scored 4.8, and those who reported no progress scored 3.2.

The findings will be used to help pinpoint areas that need further research, to help focus StepChange’s collaborative work with creditors on how best to help their customers/the charity’s clients, and to help the charity hone the debt advice journey for clients with different characteristics, so that as many people as possible get the best possible help, tailored to their needs and characteristics.

Speaking at the launch of the research to an invited audience kindly hosted by Capital One, John Griffith-Jones, who recently took up his appointment as Chair of StepChange Debt Charity, said:

"Over time, this new client tracking will help us build up a powerful understanding of the experience of different debt advice client groups. We’ll be able to use this to refine our services, but also to show policymakers a more nuanced picture of the real experiences of people who take debt advice. We plan to provide regular updates and to promote wider discussion within the debt advice sector on the shared challenges we face in helping clients achieve successful debt resolution.

"The research clearly shows the overall positive effect of debt advice on clients’ financial situations. Yet already, from the early findings of our tracking, we can see that progress in resolving debt doesn’t follow a smooth, linear trajectory – reflecting the complex and shifting circumstances in people’s lives. The more insight we have into why this is so, and who is particularly at risk, the more we will be able to help build services that work around the challenges that people face that may impair their progress."

Notes to Editors

  1. This initial Measuring Client Outcomes report is based on surveys of the same group of clients undertaken in March 2017, September 2017 and March 2018. StepChange Debt Charity now begins surveys on a new cohort of clients each quarter.
  2. Josie Warner, Research Insight and Planning Officer, also blogs today on the rationale and methodology of the research.

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