ALL COSTS ARE OPPORTUNITY COSTS: shall I buy that pair of shoes or pay down some debt?

All costs are what? Who says so?

I’ve recently started reading books about economics. OK, OK, I know: I’m a sad person, I should get out more.

But it happens that I do get out a lot. Everywhere I go, and everything I read, reminds me that I don’t know enough about the theory and practice of economics, the so-called “dismal science” that underpins our society. Hence my decision on reading matter.

Luckily, the first book I found in my local library’s very small economics section was called “The Instant Economist”, by an American professor called Timothy Taylor. Luckily, because this book is so clear and so well written. The back-cover blurb says “the only economics book you’ll ever need”. That’s quite a selling point.

All costs are opportunity costs: what does that mean?

Prof Taylor gives this simple example. Suppose you are thinking of having your house cleaned in future, rather than doing it yourself. You’ve researched it and find it will cost you $300 per month, i.e. $3600 per year. But instead of thinking of just that figure, think of what else the money could buy. His example was a holiday in Mexico. You might change the destination if you lived in Europe (or you were already located inMexico) but you get the point. That holiday is the opportunity cost. Or, as he puts it, the true cost is not the money you spend (and $3600 is “just a number”) but the thing(s) you give up.

Here’s Wikipedia’s definition:

Opportunity cost is the cost of any activity measured in terms of the value of the next best alternative forgone (that is not chosen).

Is that assertion qualified by an assumption?

Well, I’m no economist (yet) but I think it must presuppose that resources are limited. But that’s no problem, because they almost always are.

Any other examples?

Yes indeed. I’m planning a party this year to celebrate a significant birthday. (since you ask, I’ll be 40. Again).

A couple of weeks ago, I got enthusiastic about a certain venue that seemed perfect; great environment, wonderful location. Then I found out the cost: over £1000 to hire the venue, excluding catering and booze.  That should have ruled it out immediately but I’d already fallen in love with the idea. I thought “That’s expensive but maybe I can find that.” The money could have been found (and justified to myself!), but I didn’t think about the opportunity cost.

It was brought home to me by a friend (a very good friend, as this example proves) who said “Michael, you don’t need to spend that much. Your friends don’t need to be in a fancy place to enjoy a party (never a truer word was spoken), so why not find a cheap venue and spend the rest of that money on giving yourself a nice holiday?”

She was right; I could have that holiday, or give the money I might have spent to my daughters, to help them with a deposit on a flat. Opportunity cost again.

Any examples in the news?

Here in the UK, the cover story in my paper today (29 Jan 2013) is rail investment; the front page headline is “North and south unite against HS2.” If you live in the UK, you’ll know that HS2 is the planned new high-speed rail link; today’s news is that the routes for Part 2 of the project have been announced, linking Birmingham with Leeds and Manchester at a planned cost of £30+ billion.

There are environmental objections, of course, and these will probably delay commencement of work for ten years. But there are other objections, especially this: if the aim is to “spread the UK’s wealth”, as claimed, are there better ways of spending £30bn? Especially in a situation where many parts of the existing rail network are of third-world standard.

So, again, opportunity cost is the way to think of this issue. It’s about choices.

So what’s the connection with Back to the Black?

I’m glad you asked. It’s in Chapter 7, where I discuss discretionary income, i.e. what’s left after taxes, utilities and other essential costs. What you are left with is available for discretionary spending (i.e. on non-essentials) … or for paying down debt. Here’s an extract:


The Oxford English Dictionary defines that part of a person’s income remaining after essential living costs as “discretionary income”; however, you’ll often find the term “disposable income” used for the same purpose. Strictly speaking, though (again according to the OED), disposable income is simply gross income minus tax.

These days the two terms are used interchangeably – especially in the UK – for what we’re discussing here. I prefer the term “discretionary”; it’s a good description because these are the funds over whose use you have “discretion”, i.e. you are the decision-maker. You, and no-one else, can decide how much of your discretionary income you’ll spend on non-essentials and how much is available to pay down debt.


Thus, as I said at the top of this piece, “all costs are opportunity costs.” It’s apparently a key principle in economics; but it also has very practical applications in our daily lives.

It’s all about choice.



Previously, on this blog …

“Let the answering machine take the strain”.

Follow this strategy (negotiating only in writing), 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 – see my last post on this subject) 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 my book (see link below) there are some examples of letter formats you could customise to your situation.


To be continued …

The above is an extract from Chapter 2 (“Mind Over Matter”) of “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way”. [LINK]


According to the BBC news this morning, the UK’s Justice Minister Jonathan Djanogly says clarity is needed about what bailiffs are legally allowed to do.

New proposals are in the pipeline, including a ban on the use of force. There’ll be detail on what items bailiffs cannot take from homes.

This is welcome news. However, as I say in my book “Back to the Black”, there is already a code of conduct about debt collection; a code that is often broken by debt collecting companies. Let’s hope that the new code of conduct for bailiffs will be better observed, or this will be a waste of time and money.

Here’s what I say in my book about the existing code:


It is illegal for creditors to harass debtors. The following definitions of harassment are taken from the website of the UK’s Office of Fair Trading (OFT). Sadly, I know from experience that many of these practices are used by many creditors.

 Physical/psychological harassment: putting pressure on debtors or third parties is considered to be oppressive. Examples of unfair practices are as follows: 

  • contacting debtors at unreasonable times and at unreasonable intervals
  • pressurising debtors to sell property, to raise funds by further borrowing or to extend their borrowing
  • using more than one debt collection business at the same time resulting in repetitive and/or frequent contact by different parties
  • not ensuring that an adequate history of the debt is passed on as appropriate resulting in repetitive and/or frequent contact by different parties
  • not informing the debtor when their case has been passed on to a different debt collector
  • pressurising debtors to pay in full, in unreasonably large instalments, or to increase payments when they are unable to do so
  • making threatening statements or gestures or taking actions which suggest harm to debtors
  • ignoring and/or disregarding claims that debts have been settled or are disputed and continuing to make unjustified demands for payment
  • disclosing or threatening to disclose debt details to third parties unless legally entitled to do so
  • acting in a way likely to be publicly embarrassing to the debtor either deliberately or through lack of care, for example, by not putting correspondence in a sealed envelope and putting it through a letterbox, thereby running the risk that it could be read by third parties.

 Source: OFT website, “Debt collection guidance: final guidance on unfair business practices.”



For the BBC News item on the proposed law changes: click here

For a link to my book “Back to the Black,” containing details of the existing UK code of practice governing debt collection: click here











When I first started to plan and write my own book on debt (“Back to the Black” – see below) I naturally trawled the bookshops to skim, then buy and read, other books on the topic. I wanted to find out to what extent the subject had already been covered.  Was it worth writing another book, or had the subject been done to death already?


I found, to my surprise, that there were very few books on how to deal with personal debt problems. I bought and read most of them, because I didn’t want my book simply to rehash what had already been said. When I say there were very few books, I mean print books by British authors on the shelves of British bookshops. Of course there are far fewer British bookshops nowadays, but that’s another story.


I then found there were a few more that were only available as e-books, which is the way I decided to publish first. What I also found was that there were many, many more e-books by US authors. Of course that’s a bigger market (population five times higher) but there must be other reasons for the difference because it’s out of all proportion to that ratio. When I’ve figured it out I shall get back to the question in another post.


All that was a couple of years ago. Sitting on my desk today is a more recent addition to the market and I think it’s a valuable one. Its remit is wider than mine, which was simply about debt and how to handle it.

Sanni Kruger is a financial coach. She runs the local (Bristol, UK) branch of Debtors Anonymous and she’s published “Making Friends With Money: how to start feeling wealthy without waiting till you’re rich.” As the title suggests, her message is that it’s not just a matter of how much money you have; it’s also about attitude, about mind-set. Her chapter headings give a flavour of the content: feeling better about money; getting a grip on your finances; using cashflow planning to build your wealth; getting on top of debt; cashflow management from day to day; surviving the money jungle; the light at the end of the tunnel; and finally: achieving what really matters to YOU.


Ms Kruger’s background is in book-keeping and accounting, so it’s no surprise that there is plenty of detail here about budgeting and cashflow planning. That’s a subject that is a challenge for many people, including me. Perhaps it should be taught in schools but that’s another question. The coverage of this subject is sound, as you’d expect. However, the advice I liked best in this section of the book was to have two bank accounts; one main one which was simply and in-and-out vehicle for one’s regular / predictable income (be it wages or salary, benefits, pensions etc) and one’s committed / predictable expenditures, which should exit via direct debits; then you work out what’s left after the regular / committed expenditures and transfer that amount to the second account, which Ms Kruger calls the “D2D” (Day-to-Day) account. That way you get a better handle on how much you have available for discretionary purchases and for any expenditure which is regular but variable if you get my drift, e.g. food shopping. Keeping an eye on the balance in the D2D account tells me when I ought to go to Lidl / Aldi and when I could afford an occasional splurge at Waitrose.


That was very useful but in the last few chapters the book gets more into the bigger picture, or longer-term goals; right-brain thinking or whatever you want to call it. I liked the final chapter on “achieving what really matters to YOU” (Ms Kruger’s capitalisation) because that includes a kind of “hierarchy of needs” approach as it applies to money. To take as an example the specific area my book covers, she suggests these levels of debt repayment:

Level 1: nothing can be repaid

Level 2: more than zero, i.e. £1+ per month: (Ms Kruger, like me, knows that paying £1 / month to every creditor still has value)

Level 3: More than £25 / month to each creditor

Level 4: More than £200 / month to each creditor

Level 5: no debt to repay – ever again.

OK, the numbers will vary according to each person’s circumstance but the principle of working one’s way up the different levels seems good to me. Similarly on transport, she suggests that one might visualise progress (“a journey”, as they say)  from Level 1: “enough money for public transport; lifts from friends”; to Level 5: “new car of my dreams and the money for running costs etc etc, plus enough money in car replacement fund to change it at least every 2 years; public transport (first class) or taxis when desired.”

As you might guess from this section, the book closes with a further section entitled “living your dream.” Lots of other self-help books talk about that topic but Ms Kruger’s book gives people the practical tools to achieve it and the mindset to start feeling wealthy even before you become rich. Just as it says on the tin; or in the subtitle anyway. A worthwhile read.



On Sanni Kruger’s book “Making friends with money: how to start feeling wealthy without waiting till you’re rich”

Go to to order. Hard copy (comb-bound A4) £12; downloadable .pdf £7.20, or in four sections each £1.99

On my own book about managing debt, “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way”.

eBook only. To sample for free, or purchase (all versions around £0.70 / $0.99):

  • Available in the Kindle store; click HERE:
  • Available in all e-formats, including .pdf, at Smashwords. Click HERE:


A BBC investigation has found that some debt management companies have been holding on to clients’ cash rather than paying it to creditors, The practice has left many debtors thousands of pounds worse off and facing financial ruin.

If a firm goes out of business and client funds have not been kept in a protected account, some or all of the money is likely to be lost and the debtor becomes liable for the shortfall.

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has condemned the practice as “totally unacceptable” and has promised a crackdown.

Repossession order

One couple mentioned in the report had to put their house on the market and could face repossession, after responding to a cold-call from a debt management company and taking out a Debt Management Plan or DMP.

That company, Global Debt Solutions, based in Bolton, offered to arrange a repayment plan for £40,000 of credit card debt and loans. However, after having made payments to Global Debt Solutions for several months, the couple found the money was not being handed over to creditors.

Those creditors have successfully taken the couple to court, so they now have County Court Judgements against them. They’ll also have to go to court on their mortgage, so their debt problems have got far worse instead of being solved. It could soon be at a point where they’ll lose their home.

A widespread practice?

Global Debt Solutions, later known as 3 Step Finance, has been shut down by the Insolvency Service, which found that it did not monitor payments properly.

However, it has emerged that other companies have adopted the same tactic of accepting money from people in debt and not passing it on to creditors.

OFT action

A debtor taking out a DMP with a company using this tactic runs a real risk that the company might fail while the funds are in its account.

David Fisher from the Office of Fair Trading is promising action. “We regard the practice as unacceptable,” he warns. “Where we have evidence we will remove a company’s consumer credit licence, which means it cannot operate.

“We will also next month (i.e. June 2011) be issuing stronger rules for the entire sector, which explain what we expect of them.”

That is welcome news but sadly it is already too late for those debtors who are already dealing, or will soon be dealing, with a repossession order for their home.

Conclusion: take impartial advice

I conclude by saying what I always say: before making any important financial decision – including taking out a Debt Management Plan with a commercial company – take advantage of the free and impartial debt advice which is available these days. I stress the word “impartial”, because some advice is advertised as free but is not impartial, i.e. the organisation has a commercial motive for advising a certain course of action.

The advice you’ll get from the three major national charities working in this field – Citizens Advice, National Debtline and Consumer Credit Counselling Services – is indeed both free and impartial.

There are also many similar (i.e. “not-for-profit”) organisations that operate at a local level but check out carefully that they indeed “not-for-profit” before taking their advice. You can also refer to the Resources section of my book “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way”; there you’ll find contact details for about 50 advice organisations.



The full BBC story is at:

My book “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way”, is available on the following retail sites:

Kindle Store:

Smashwords store for other e-formats, including .pdf:



Yesterday I was working with Jenny Layton, who’s giving me fantastic help with the text-editing of Edition 2 of “Back To The Black”, i.e. the complete content as an e-book. I am still hoping we’ll get the file uploaded by the end of February.

After that the next project will be a podcast and an audio version of the complete book.

This morning I did another interview with Heart FM, this time with Rob Mayor. This came about because Heart felt that the issue of “Payday Loans” needed exploring further. We talked about why people are tempted by such loans, the benefits on which they are sold, and the well-known disadvantages of the astronomical interest rates. Those rates could be affordable if it’s the only game in town AND if the loan really is repaid really quickly, i.e. on payday, but if it’s rolled over then the problem starts.

We talked about credit unions as an alternative to high-street lenders or to payday loans.

I also stressed the need to take advice, preferably from an independent, impartial (i.e. not-for-profit) advice service such as the local CAB (Citizens Advice Bureau, for the benefit of any readers of this blog who are not in the UK) or CCCS (Consumer Credit Counselling Service) or National Debtline. Then the need to formulate a plan with the aid of that advice, and to inform the creditors that is what you’re doing and ask them to freeze interest while that’s happening. If you don’t ask you don’t get, but many debtors spend too long in denial (and I was one) and don’t communicate, which makes the situation worse.

All this is the kind of advice that most people have read lots of times; however, my hope is that when the complete book is published, people will view the advice in a different light because of what I say about where I went wrong. In fact the book’s subtitle could even be “Learn from my mistakes”.


Today I was a guest on the drivetime show at Bristol’s community radio station BCfm, (link here for website), being interviewed live by Station Manager Phil Gibbons about “Back To The Black”. Although I had been a presenter on the station for much of last year, it was a new and pleasant experience being a guest. For a start, I didn’t have to pay for my coffee this time. Seriously though, who doesn’t like being asked questions about a topic in which they are interested?

My interview was interspersed with two others: with Neil Innes and Michael Palin, no less! This was because the station was running a live outside broadcast from Bristol’s Colston Hall, where both were about to perform in the city’s Festival of Slapstick. Phil said I could now dine out on the fact that I’d appeared on a chat show with these two luminaries; and that they “kept cutting across my airtime!”

Phil asked a very good question about one of the tips from my book. I’d mentioned some of the basic stuff about communicating with creditors, making an offer, etc, and he pointed out that those tips could be obtained in other books, websites, etc. “People know that’s the thing to do” he said, “so why don’t they do it?” My answer was that people like to read stories rather than to be told what to do, so the fact that my book’s advice is interspersed with the story of my own debt problem and how I worked my way out of it, will hopefully make people more likely to act on the tips given.

Phil wrapped up the interview by wishing me well with the book: “Hope it makes you rich – no, sorry, that’s not the point. I guess your point is to stop other people becoming poor”. To which I readily agreed.

In fact the Free Edition of “Back To The Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way” is available as a free download, in .pdf format, at


Here’s a copy of a media release I’m circulating today, regarding the launch of “Back to the Black.”


Date: 18 January 2010

From: Michael J MacMahon

For immediate release

Subject: New book launched: helping debtors get “Back To The Black.”




An author who faced bankruptcy shares what he learned and reveals the key questions that can help individuals deal with debt.


A new self-help book for people with debt problems has been launched today. “Back To The Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way” is based partly on the author’s practical experience of escaping bankruptcy and partly on the principles of coaching. Chapters 1-3 in their entirety are now available as a free downloadable file, at .

The book’s author, Michael J MacMahon, says: “A few years ago I survived a major financial crisis. While digging myself out of that hole, I became interested in the principles of coaching, especially the idea that most people have the knowledge and resources to solve their own problems, if only they get the right support. One of the best ways of providing that support is to ask the right questions, because questions help to focus thinking, especially at times of stress; and being in debt is certainly one of those times. The book is thus derived from my experience and also demonstrates how those key questions can help anyone get out of debt.”

The book has been favourably reviewed by debt advice experts at the UK’s Citizens Advice organisation. Some of the best advice is simple practical stuff, for example:

  • Start by listing all your debts, bank balances and assets: knowing the truth is better than a vague feeling of threat.
  • Communicate with creditors: the problem gets worse if you ignore it.
  • Make an offer: any offer, no matter how small, is better than none.
  • Never negotiate on the phone: do it in writing; it’s less stressful.
  • You don’t need to be alone: get help from a debt advice organisation.
  • Keep records of all communications: it pays dividends.


The free download version, containing Chapters 1 – 3, of my book “Back To The Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way” is now available as a .pdf file.

It’s on the social publishing site Scribd.

Click on this link, or copy and paste this URL into your browser:

It’ll also be available on other sites soon. Watch this space!


A few years ago I hit a financial crisis. I had a business which, after five very promising years, had begun to stagnate. I had turned a blind eye to the problem and came very close to bankruptcy. With the help and support of friends and of a few professionals (one of whom happened also to be a friend) I was able to avoid that, and eventually came through the experience without permanent scars to my spirit or credit rating.

Later, I decided to write a book about the experience and what I had learned from it. My book would be written from the perspective of someone who had been there, had the problem and found a way out of it.

After spending a lot of time over the past two years trying to get a deal with mainstream publishing houses, I have now decided to self-publish the book. It will be available first as an e-book; later, depending on demand, as a paperback and an audiobook.

The e-book will be available early in the New Year. Its working title is “Back to the black: how to become debt-free and stay that way.” If you’d like to be advised by e-mail when it’s available, please post a response on this blog.