DX6516_2905414b[1]“The amount UK consumers owe on loans and credit cards grew by £1.9bn in March 2016, the highest figure in 11 years, driven by a sharp rise in spending on plastic.”    (The Guardian)

If personal debt really is increasing again at a worrying rate, then a growing number of people could soon be facing the stress of a debt crisis.

For anyone facing this kind of problem, debt advisers might say things like this:

  • Don’t ignore the situation. Open the demand letters, make a list of the balances.
  • Always respond to every communication from a creditor. That shows you’re serious about dealing with the situation.
  • Make an offer. Explain if you can’t offer more.

To those basic steps, I’d add another:

  • Always communicate in writing. You’ll have a record of what was said and agreed; and it’s less stressful than dealing with creditors on the phone.

Avoid the phone

Many years ago I was in that situation, when my small business failed and I owed money to 26 creditors. Negotiating with all of them took a long time but eventually I came through it without permanent scars on my sanity (as far as I know).

I always negotiated in writing, never on the phone.

Dealing with a creditor on the telephone is stressful. My voicemail took a lot of the strain (what a great invention, whether you have an actual machine or a service from your phone provider) but if a creditor left a message I always responded … in writing.


One of the complications that I occasionally encountered was the involvement of intermediaries. Some were bogus law firms which were actually departments of the creditor company, with stationery designed to give the impression of being a genuine law firm, in order to intimidate.

When dealing with intermediaries of any kind, I was always extra-polite, working on the assumption that they hadn’t been fully informed, so I would write things like: “maybe you don’t know, but in the letter of so-and-so from your client …” and I’d enclose or attach a copy of the previous correspondence.

Not keen on writing letters? Help is available!

You might say that writing letters (or emails) is not your strong point. That’s no problem, because lots of debt management organisations can help you. For example, here in the UK, Citizens Advice Bureaux are all over the country and their advice is free and impartial. They helped me greatly. The other major nationwide debt advice charities are StepChange and National Debtline. There are also many local not-for-profit advice providers: for example in Bristol, where I live, there’s Talking Money. There’ll be one near you.

Buying time: it helps your negotiation

The other benefit of working with one of the debt advice charities, or any adviser, is that it creates a little distance between you and the creditor and it buys you some time. So, if a creditor calls you rejecting your offer and gives you a counter-proposal, you can say (politely, of course!) “thank you; but could you put that in writing, please, because I have to refer it to my advisers.”

Letter templates

Templates for standard letters / emails are available from some of the organisations I mentioned above. You can also find templates in my book Back to the Black.

Want to know more?

This article is an extract from my book Back to the Black … how to become debt-free and stay that way.



Miquita Oliver? A week ago I’d never heard of her. Now I am a big fan, a supporter, an advocate.

Hers is not a name you would expect to see on a 70-year-old bloke’s blog. She’s in her late twenties and was formerly ‘the face of music TV’ on Channel 4.

At seventeen, Miquita was earning so much money she didn’t know how to handle it. She ended up bankrupt over an unpaid tax bill.

Now she’s a campaigner on the paydays loans issue. She’d not alone; many financial journalists have been consistently outspoken on the subject, as has the Archbishop of Canterbury. But the TV programme she fronted on Monday was the most powerful message I’ve seen about the insidious power of the now-substantial payday loan industry.

Why? Because she’s young and it’s her age-group that the companies target; because she’s a great communicator; because she’s had money troubles herself and displayed great empathy with those who were getting sucked into the vicious circle of debt. And because she went out and about interviewing lots of young people who were tempted by the loans as a way to instant parties; and showed us the moving stories of those who had been driven to attempted and actual suicide because of the ballooning debts. Impressive stuff.


To watch the programme on the BBC’s iPlayer, click HERE.

(it’s available only until just before 10 pm on Tues 10 Dec)



The paperback version of my book “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way” is now available on

It encapsulates what I learned from my own debt problem a few years ago, when I very nearly had to file for bankruptcy but found another way.

Hopefully the lessons I learned are set out in such a way as to help others who might now be in the same situation as I was.

The marketing material reads as follows:

  • Worried about debt? This book shows how to handle stress, to optimise your repayment schedule; to budget and track spending. 
  • You’ll feel confident of your ability to handle the debt and will have a plan for doing so. You’ll learn to evaluate today’s situation and decide realistic goals; to develop options and calculate discretionary income. 
  • Armed with that information, decisions will seem easier.

 You can also find a kindle version on Amazon; a .pdf version on my own site: and other e-formats in the Smashwords store.


For the paperback version of “Back to the Black”: LINK

For the ebook versions:

Smashwords, for a multi-format ebook: LINK

Kindle store: LINK

For .pdf only: LINK


“It’s not just the weak that can end up in a debt spiral”, wrote Simon Read of The Independent (London) a couple of weeks ago. I was reassured to read that, because I had ended up in that very spiral in the late 90s and I didn’t want to think that I had been weak. Oh no, not me.

The article was topical. Payday loans had hit the headlines again when R3, the professional association that represents insolvency practitioners, warned that up to 3.5 million people in Britain are expected to take out a short-term loan to tide them over in the coming six months.

First, the good news …

Simon Read says of the loans: “if you need emergency cash and know you can pay it back within a few days, then paying £20-£30 for the privilege doesn’t seem too bad, especially bearing in mind how much the charges and interest can add up to if you go into the red at a bank.”

Then the bad news …

But as Read says, and I have written in these pages before, the obvious problem is that if you don’t repay the loan quickly then it mounts up: it spirals, in fact. What’s more, you could end up paying bank charges and interest anyway, as well as the interest to the loan company.

Wonga boss explains

The most interesting part of the piece was this. Because of the negative publicity, Wonga’s boss Errol Damelin got in touch with the Indy to offer a defence of his business methods. He said: “If things go wrong we charge a one-off default fee of £20 and then stop any further interest at a maximum of 60 days.”

That sounds fair and it’s the kind of responsible business practice that Simon Read, and in fact all of us, would like to see, though I’d like to know how Wonga defines “when things go wrong”, i.e. when does this kind of “interest cap” kick in?

The Independent would like to hear from anyone who’s had experiences (good or bad, I trust) with Wonga or other payday lenders who claim to operate fairly.

Author’s payday loan spiral

The article concluded by recommending a book by Steve Perry, entitled When Payday Loans Go Wrong. It describes the author’s “descent into debt hell”, which started innocently enough with a £250 loan for a weekend away but ended 18 months later with 64 loans from 12 different companies totalling £15,000.

My own debt experience was not caused by payday loans … but the result was similar. My business started to go wrong, so I started funding it with personal credit cards. I ended up owing a total of £65,000 to 23 separate  creditors and narrowly avoided bankruptcy. Different cause but the same spiral, which I described in my book “Back to the Black.”


For the full Simon Read article click here:

For information about Steve Perry’s book “When Payday Loans Go Wrong”, click here:

For information about my book “Back to the Black”, click here:


There’s been some Twitter traffic lately about student debt, including some tweets just yesterday.

Firstly, this from @CashQuestions (Annie Shaw):

“There’s some sort of bullsh*t doing rounds that student debt shdn’t count if u apply for a mortgage. It counts when u come to pay tho – doh”

That was, I think, a response to this tweet from @little_mavis (Mary Wombat) (and retweeted by @CashQuestions):

“I hate the ‘student loan debt isn’t really debt’ or ‘a different sort of debt’. A DEBT IS A BLOODY DEBT. YOU OWE SOMEONE MONEY.”

“Yeah but no but”

So … are student loans are a different sort of debt?

No, absolutely not, in that you owe someone money.

However, yes, in that the debt does not fall due unless and until your income goes above a certain level. In that way it becomes more like a tax.

If you had a bank loan, the bank would not say “OK, that debt is not due; you don’t have to pay me because you don’t have a job – or you have a low-paying job – right now.”

In that way a student loan is better than other kinds of debt, as far as the debtor is concerned.

Effect of bankruptcy

However, if the worst comes to the worst and someone goes bankrupt who still has student loan debt: in that case, the student loan is different too. In my book “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way”, I say this:

When you are bankrupt you do not, in general, make payments to your creditors; they make a claim to your trustee instead. There are, however, a few exceptions, payment for which you remain responsible. For example:

  • secured creditors (e.g. any mortgage you may have)

  • “non-provable” debts (e.g. court fines and maintenance arrears under divorce settlements)

  • student loans.

Repay or delay?

Here is another interesting issue around student loans. As Martin Lewis says (30.08.2011) on his excellent “Moneysaving Expert” site, student loan is (relatively) cheap debt; therefore should you repay it faster than you’re required to (if you’ve got spare cash) or is it better to save?

The answer depends, of course, on your situation, so the site has a calculator to help answer the question.



The MoneySavingExpert site and calculator: click HERE:

“Back to the Black”: eBook on managing debt

To sample for free, or purchase (£0.70 / $0.99), my debt advice book:

  • “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way” is available in the Kindle store. Click HERE:
  • It’s also available in all e-formats, including .pdf, at Smashwords. Click HERE:



In my post of 2 Feb 2011 (“Is there life after bankruptcy?”) I quoted an article from “Moneywise” magazine (Jan 2011), containing a useful summary of the danger signs that debts might be running out of control. The last item on that list of danger signs is the one I want to go back to today:

  • If you are not opening bills and are screening calls from creditors, seek advice. Ignoring payments will not make them go away and the problem will only get worse.

Firstly, I agree totally about seeking advice if any of those five signs fits your situation. And yes, I agree totally that ignoring payments – ignoring the situation in general – will make the problem get worse.

Not opening bills? Ten years ago, I was “guilty as charged” on that score. I know from bitter experience that mounting interest charges, penalty charges etc can result. Luckily I didn’t get to the point of being taken to court, despite many threats.

Incoming phone calls

However, it’s the question of incoming phone calls I want to talk about here. Yes, the fact that you feel you need to screen phone calls is one sign that you’re worried about your debts.

However, there is a case for letting your answering machine take those calls, subject to one important condition: that you take note of any messages left by your creditors and you respond to them in writing.

In my book “Back to the Black” I deal with incoming calls as follows:


In order to create space between you and your creditors, I recommend that you conduct your negotiations in writing only. There are all kinds of benefits here:

  • You have time to think before responding.

  • It will look professional; if you are not good at composing letters, there are some examples in the “resources” section, which you can adapt to fit your situation; or you can get an adviser to help.

  • You have a record of everything that has been said by both parties.

  • … and most importantly, it is less stressful.

“Let the answering machine take the strain”.

Follow this strategy, summon up your reserves of patience and persistence, and the huge benefit is that you avoid verbal discussions. They are just too stressful right now and, thanks to that wonderful invention the telephone answering machine, you need never speak to a creditor in person.

When I say this, I am not advocating that you ignore telephone calls. No, you should respond if a creditor leaves a message but you do it in writing, referring to any previous correspondence and repeating your previous offer, if you have made one, or perhaps making an offer, if you have not done so. Alternatively you could simply state your position and ask for their understanding and for more time.

One slight disadvantage of the telephone “bubble” concept (Seve Ballesteros again) could be that your friends might notice that you are never in, even when they expected you to be so. Is that a major problem? Probably not. If you have an actual answering machine, rather than the service from your telephone provider, then you can use it to filter your calls, by listening to the machine before deciding whether to pick up. If you have “caller display” on your home phone, or you are being called on a mobile, problem solved: you can be 100% selective about which calls you accept and which you allow to go through to voicemail.

Now I do recognise that there are some people who simply cannot resist answering a ringing phone. If you are one of those people and you can’t break the habit, then all I can say is that I hope you are someone who is not stressed out by this kind of situation, in which case you are in the lucky minority. In such a case, carry on following your instincts and answer the phone, but I would still urge you not to conduct a negotiation on the phone. Simply take in what is said and offer to think it over and reply – but in writing.

Always respond both to written correspondence and to phone messages and do so Promptly, Politely, Professionally – and Persistently (i.e. sticking to your guns). In the resources section at the end of the book there are some examples of letter formats you could customise



I hope that the above is of help. If you need more info (for example if you want to know why I refer to Seve Ballesteros!), get in touch or read my book.


Want to know more?

Want to view, free of charge, the first 20% of my multi-format eBook (“Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way”)?

Go to:


The good people at “Moneywise” magazine have recently published (Jan 2011 edition) a story about bankruptcy, which contains a useful summary of the danger signs that debts might be running out of control.

  1. You use your credit card to buy groceries or to pay bills, not knowing when you’ll be able to clear the balance.
  2. Applying for a new credit card, loan or extension on your overdraft is the only way that you can get ready cash for daily expenditure or to service existing debts.
  3. Your debt is mushrooming because you either only make minimum payments each month or are unable to pay off any money owed.
  4. If you have started to miss monthly repayments on your credit card or, worse still, you are in arrears on your mortgage, you need to seek immediate help. Contact creditors to see if you can make reduced payments or have a mortgage break while you sort out your finances.
  5. If you are not opening bills and are screening calls from creditors, seek advice. Ignoring payments will not make them go away and the problem will only get worse.

The article contains some interesting case studies, of three people who had to file for bankruptcy: 32-year old Emma Smith from Milton Keynes; 54-year-old Terry Donaldson from Huddersfield and 27-year-old Michelle Cheston from Newcastle.

I noticed one unusual silver lining to these three clouds. There are costs associated with going bankrupt (typically about £600) but, as the article mentions, Michelle had served in the RAF. Not for long, because she could only have been 24 when she left the service. However, her adviser at Citizens Advice told her she could apply for help to the Royal British Legion. She did; and they paid all her fees. As I mention in my book “Back to the Black”, the Legion’s support is a benefit that is open to anyone who’s served in the UK armed forces, even for a relatively short time.


Want to know more?

  1. Want a copy of the full Moneywise article? Go to
  2. Want to view, free of charge, the first 20% of my multi-format eBook “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way?” Go to:


In my book “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way”, I tell the story of my own brush with bankruptcy in 1999. At that time, my then accountant recommended that I should file for voluntary bankruptcy.

Why I didn’t go bankrupt

In the event, I did not take the bankruptcy route, for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons was that I had some occupational pensions (of the “money purchase” type, not final salary) accumulated over the years. If I had become bankrupt those pensions might well have been vulnerable.

How the law has changed to the benefit of debtors

However, the law has changed: pensions are now to a great extent protected in a bankruptcy.

According to HM Government’s Insolvency Service, any private pension fund you have built up cannot generally be claimed as an “asset” if the bankruptcy petition was presented on or after 29 May 2000, as long as the scheme was approved by HM Revenue & Customs.

What to do

If you are considering bankruptcy, first read Chapters 8, 9 and 10 of my book, in order to review the pros and cons of the alternative routes “back to the black”. Chapter 9 deals with bankruptcy and IVAs (Individual Voluntary Arrangements) . Then, if you still plan to consider bankruptcy, take professional advice: either from one of the non-profit advice services (for example Citizens Advice, Consumer Credit Counselling Service or National Debtline) or from an insolvency practitioner. There is a checklist in Chapter 9 of my book about how to go about selecting the right insolvency practitioner for your particular situation.

Want to know more?

My book “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way” is available on the Smashwords site. To sample (first 20% free) or to buy at only $3.99, go to

HM Government’s Insolvency Service’s publications can be found at


My book, “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way”, is now available as an eBook on the “Smashwords” site.

Ten years ago I ran up heavy debts when my business collapsed. I had started a training business seven years before, after a long career in the chemical industry. When my enterprise ran into difficulties, credit was easy, so I could fund it with loans and credit cards. In the short term this plugged the gap; I thought things would improve. They didn’t.

So I closed the business down, looked for a job, and tried to work out how to solve my debt problem. My first intention was to pay off everything I owed but I knew it would take time. I didn’t think I could get the debts down to a manageable level in less than five to ten years; my creditors would not give me that kind of time.

My financial adviser recommended bankruptcy. I had by then sunk all my assets into the business, so he said that there could never be a better time for me to go bankrupt. For many reasons I didn’t want to do that although after a fairly short period, I would have been debt-free. The advantages and disadvantages of bankruptcy – and its modern alternative, the IVA (Individual Voluntary Arrangement) – are set out in detail in the book; recent developments have taken away some of the former stigma and the practical disadvantages of these solutions.

However, I decided instead that I would negotiate a deal with my creditors myself. This approach I call “Plan C – negotiate a deal” – and you’ll find it in Chapter 10 of the book. I made an offer to all my creditors for full and final settlement. Eventually all of them, apart from the taxman, agreed to the deal.

At the time, I thought my debt problem was insurmountable. It was a very stressful period. However, I was lucky to have the support of a debt advice agency and other professionals and friends.

I came through the experience; I learned a lot.

I was not, and am not, happy with the fact that I was unable to pay my debts in full. After the event, however, I decided to write up what had happened, partly for my own benefit. I even thought that maybe it would make a couple of newspaper articles. If other people with debt problems could benefit from reading about my mistakes and what I’d learned, then something good would have come out of it all.

Those articles eventually grew into a book – “Back to the Black” – which sets out what I call the three main strategies for dealing with debt. It also contains lots of advice for dealing with debt-related stress and with the demands of creditors.

In summary, my book is based not on a theoretical approach to debt, but on painful experience. I hope that you can benefit from reading about that experience. If you have debts, whether they are consumer debts or business debts or both, the principles for dealing with them are the same. The experiences you are going through, though unique to your situation, will have much in common with mine.

Go to if you’d like to know more.