News, Culture & Society

Spot the signs of problem debt in friends and family

Could you spot the warning signs of problem debt in friends and family? One in ten Britons are struggling in silence – here’s how you can help

As many as eight million people in the UK are overwhelmed by financial worries and are frequently unable to pay monthly bill payments. 

Yet money worries are still a taboo subject for many people and less than one in five will actually seek help. This leaves 10 per cent of Britons suffering in silence and dealing with problem debts alone, according to research from the Money Advice Service. 

But how can you spot this among your friends and family and what can you do to help? 

Bills mounting up? Make sure you ask for help early to avoid falling in to a debt crisis

Who is most at risk?

According to The Money Advice Service, young adults, renters, larger families and single parents are the most likely to struggle with debts. 

It can seem easier to bury your head in the sand, or cover up any issues because you are embarrassed or want to protect loved ones.

However, identifying the symptoms and acting early can make all the difference when it comes to stopping debts become an overwhelming problem.

(Scroll down for the list of warning signs to watch out for). 

Can friends and family help? 

Friends and family play a key role in helping spot any potential issues early, according to Sheila Wheeler, Director of Debt Advice at the Money Advice Service.

She says: ‘With one in six people in the UK at risk of a debt crisis, there is a high chance that someone close to us may be struggling with money troubles. We are calling on friends and family to watch out for the signs someone might need help and to support them to access free debt advice as soon as possible.

‘For people who are experiencing financial difficulties, we want you to know that help is available and you do not need to suffer alone. Friends and family will want to help and support you. 

‘Free debt advice is available now and will help support you in getting your finances back on track before your money worries become a bigger issue. Use the Debt test to find out how you can resolve your debts and find free, impartial help in your area.’ 

Seeking professional advice can help dramatically – 65 per cent of people are either actively clearing their debts or have repaid them in full within three months of seeking advice.

It can quickly have knock-on effects to their mental and physical health.

A massive 73 per cent of those in debt who seek help feel less stressed about their finances, two thirds begin to sleep better and half reported feeling better physically, According to Money Advice Service. 


There are three simple steps that friends and family can take to help someone who might be experiencing financial difficulties:

1) Start a conversation – Use your own personal experiences to help get to the bottom of their financial worries, make sure you keep the conversation neutral and non-judgmental.

2) Talk to them about free debt advice – Help your friend or family member to understand that free debt advice will help them get their finances back on track. Ask them to make a commitment to seek free debt advice. You could also offer to help them by going along with them

3) Use the Money Advice Service – Encourage them to use the Debt test to work out the best option to help them resolve their money worries and find free debt advice in their area.

Source: The Money Advice Service

Where are the problem debt hotspots

Newham in London and Kingston upon Hull, top the list of the areas in the country with the highest levels of problem debt at 23.1 and 22.2 per cent respectively.

At the other end of the spectrum, those living in East Dunbartonshire in Scotland and Wealden in East Sussex have the lowest levels of problem debt at 9.9 per cent. 

You can see how your region ranks, using the Money Advice Service Over Indebtedness map. 

Top 10 areas with the most residents with problem debts percentage of residents with debt problems Top 10 areas  with the least residents with problem debts percentage of residents with debt problems
1 Newham 23.10% East Dunbartonshire 9.90%
2 Kingston upon Hull, City of 22.20% Wealden 9.90%
3 Tower Hamlets 22.20% East Renfrewshire 9.80%
4 Barking and Dagenham 22.10% Hart 9.80%
5 Manchester 22.00% Wokingham 9.80%
6 Blaenau Gwent 21.90% Chiltern 9.60%
7 Nottingham 21.70% South Bucks 9.60%
8 Sandwell 21.50% Mole Valley 9.50%
9 Leicester 21.10% East Dorset 9.40%
10 Stoke-on-Trent 20.80% Elmbridge 9.40%
Source: Money Advice  Service       


The Money Advice Service has come up with a list of signs to watch out for in friends and family members that may suggest they are struggling with problem debts.

  1. They have been in debt in the past 
  2. They have had a recent life event (such as having a baby, losing a job, illness, divorce or a family bereavement) which has caused a loss of income or for them to spend more. 
  3. They are living beyond their means or over spending, this could mean you often see them with the latest ‘must have’ item, which they perhaps don’t have the income to afford. 
  4. You might see a change in their behaviour find they avoid socialising, people struggling with debts can often become anxious, withdrawn or depressed. 
  5. They may seem more secretive, avoiding the subject of their finances and hiding any issues. 
  6. You may notice a change in their spending habits – either reducing spending (e.g going on fewer holidays or eating out less) or overspending (spending without a plan for repayment for example putting luxury items on credit) 
  7. They seem tired or are having trouble sleeping
  8. Their weight has changed suddenly – either increasing or decreasing