We aim to make our website as accessible as possible. However if you use a screen reader and require debt advice you may find it easier to phone us instead. Our phone number is 0 8 0 0 1 3 8 1 1 1 1. Freephone (including all mobiles).
A man and woman in their fifties standing in a park

Financial resilience in a world of uncertainty

Download the report

A lack of resilience against life events is driving problem debt

Over 3 million people are in problem debt in Great Britain, with almost 9.8 million showing signs of financial distress. 'Life happens' looks at the financial resilience gap: what situations trigger people's spiral of financial difficulties and why are so many people falling into problem debt as a result?

Life events are a common part of all our lives

Almost half (45%) – equivalent to 23 million people – say they've experienced a significant life event, such as separation or falling ill, in the past two years. Many were financially worse off as a result. People who experienced a life event in the last two years were three times as likely to be in problem debt.

My chronic medical condition worsened, which caused me to take long term sick leave off work. Eventually both my salary and my statutory sick pay ran out and I was forced to use my savings to pay my rent - StepChange client, 2019

Some groups of people are particularly at risk

Experiencing a life event increases people’s risk of falling into problem debt. Among those who experienced a life event, we found that certain groups were at an even higher risk of being in problem debt.

An orange icon of a briefcase

People of working age

11% of those in employment who had experienced a life event in the last two years are currently in problem debt.

An orange icon of a smiling baby


Almost 15% of people with children who had experienced a life event are in problem debt, compared to 6% of people without children.

An orange icon of a pile of coins

Lower and middle income households

Amongst those with a gross household income under £30,000, around 1 in 10 (10%) of those who experienced a life event are also in problem debt.

An orange icon of a house with a door


14% of those who rent their home had experienced a life event and are in problem debt, compared to 4% of those who have a mortgage or own their home outright.

How do people cope with life events?

The two most common coping strategies of those we surveyed were cutting back on expenditure and using their savings for day-to-say spending. Our research shows that for many people these strategies are simply not enough to avoid problem debt.

Number of coping strategies used 5 or more 4 3 2 1 0
Proportion of people in problem debt 32% 21% 17% 8% 3% 1%
Proportion showing signs of financial distress 42% 45% 43% 32% 25% 10%
purple icon of two people under an umbrella sheltering them from bills and credit cards

42% of people using 5 or more coping strategies were showing signs of financial distress. And 32% of people using 5 or more coping strategies were in problem debt.

Dave's story

Dave and his wife were both in full-time employment until she was diagnosed with cancer and he was diagnosed with kidney disease, that eventually led to sepsis. They were both forced to stop working, leaving them reliant on £20,000 in savings. Sadly, Dave’s wife passed away soon after her diagnosis, leaving him to support himself and their two sons alone.

"After my income began to go down, we had credit cards, and a bit of savings which we were using up. We’d saved beforehand, but that soon dwindled away. I was using the credit for food and clothes quite often. We managed to get a council tax reduction and we got grants off Macmillan to help us with the gas and electricity, which went some way towards it, but the rest we had to pay ourselves.

"I contacted StepChange because it got too much to handle myself. It was just a downwards spiral. It was just getting to the end point where I thought 'I can’t take this anymore, I need to do something about it.'"

The way support works for people impacted by a life event helps determine whether they stay out of debt or not. There's a strong case to be made for redesigning a comprehensive system of support that prevents problem debt and helps people get their finances back on track. Given how common life events can be, it’s in all our interests to get this right.

What questions do our findings raise?

Our initial analysis raises a number of questions, which need exploring further. Why are current forms of support not preventing people falling into problem debt? What is it about those who can cope that protects them? What support do people need when they experience a life event, in order to avoid problem debt?

Download the report for our full findings and next steps.

Download the report

Want to get involved?

Email us to discuss how we can work together to help break the link between life events and debt.