I recently attended an excellent conference in London, on Facebook marketing. Somebody, I can’t remember who, made the claim that “Facebook will at some point become the world’s biggest bank”. I didn’t know whether to believe that. However, I did hear many presentations at that event from entrepreneurs apparently earning serious money through Facebook and other online resources.

What I didn’t hear that day, but I know now, was that hundreds of individuals now lend money to each other through Facebook. “Cutting out the middleman”, we used to say; and Facebook is facilitating it. I came across this interesting fact while trawling through my “newspaper cuttings awaiting reading” pile and found an article by Maryrose Fison in The Independent. It was a couple of months ago but no matter.

Debt rescheduling / consolidation / relocation?

People who are concerned about their debts often ask advisers if they should look for ways to move the debt elsewhere, for example through a debt consolidation loan. The pros and cons of that route have been discussed many times so I won’t go into it here, except to say that the general advice is always to avoid this kind of loan if it has to be secured against your home.

A zero percent balance transfer is another way of getting “free” credit. Even allowing for the fact that there’s always a fee of around 3%, it’s cheap money, provided your credit record is clean enough to get it.

Borrowing money from individuals, however, is something that was new to me; except, of course, for friends and family, who are often a source of funds from which debtors make offers to their creditors for “full and final settlement”. However, this new trend is borrowing from individuals who are total strangers.

Here’s an extract from what Ms Fison said:

“As hundreds of thousands of Britons struggle to get a foot on the property ladder, with banks continuing to crack down on new lending, social networking applications have become a lifeline. Who would willingly choose to pay through the roof for an unattractive loan package when there are millions of social network users gagging to lend you their money for less?

“The average rate of interest on a loan at the Lending Club over the past 36 months has been 9.22 per cent. On Zopa, the typical APR on a loan of £5,000 over three years is 8.3 per cent, and on Funding Circle a £15,000, three-year loan has an APR of 9 per cent -well below the 12 per cent a typical bank would charge.”

That sounds attractive, although there are lending offers on the market nearer 9% than 12%; some of them were listed on the same page of the paper under “best buys”. The issue, again, would be whether one’s credit record would be good enough to qualify. A private lender would also need reassurance but might be more flexible than a bank, as they are getting a relatively high return (much better than the high street, anyway) on their money.

Facebook apps

You’ll note that Ms Fison (excuse my formal mode of address: I’m old-fashioned and I’ve never spoken to her, though I shall be following her on Twitter from now on) mentioned The Lending Club; she says it was one of the first applications to be added to Facebook in 2007. She also mentions Zopa:

“UK-based social lending service Zopa is another provider, and the number of communal lending and borrowing sites with applications on social networks is growing at a staggering rate.”

Ms Fison concludes:

“Social networking applications may still be in their infancy, but given the popularity of personal finance and online peer lending, their influence on our day-to-day activities looks set to take off this year.”

Well, there is nothing to be lost and lots to be gained by investigating this further. I’ll certainly be doing some research into peer lending sites: watch this space!


For a copy of the full article in The Independent by Maryrose Fison:

For a free sample of my book, “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way”, go to:


Other e-formats, including .pdf:

You can follow me on Twitter: @michaelmac43, or Facebook: Michael James MacMahon.


A few years ago, when severely in debt, I avoided opening letters from banks and credit card companies. So I couldn’t begin the process of getting out of debt, because I didn’t have a clear picture of my situation.

However, I found that when I bit the bullet and analysed my situation in detail, I felt better! Knowing the facts, no matter how bad, is better than living with a “sword of Damocles” hanging overhead.

If you too have been ignoring those letters, please start opening them now.

Sorting that paperwork

1.       Bank statements. Overdraft? How much?

2.       Credit card / store card statements

3.       Invoices from other creditors

4.       Tax correspondence (if self-employed)

5.       “Informal” liabilities, e.g. loans from friends / family

When you’ve totalled the debts in categories 1-5, now list the positive side of your “personal balance sheet”, i.e.

6.       Estimates of the value of your assets: property; car; cash at bank (if your account’s in the black); shares; insurance policies; money owed to you, including refunds; occupational pension funds [if you’re old enough to consider cashing them in]; anything that could be turned into cash if necessary.

Now prioritise your debts, as follows:

  • Priority: “roof-over-your-head” and essential utilities, for example:
    • mortgage or rent arrears (you could lose your home)
    • other debts secured on your home (same result)
    • Council Tax (they can send in the bailiffs)
    • gas & electricity (they can cut you off)
    • water (though they cannot).
  • Non-priority: all other services you need, e.g. car loan; home or mobile phone; credit cards; all other creditors.

Income and expenditure

Now you’ve assessed your liabilities and your assets, you need to evaluate your income and expenditure. It’s a “profit and loss statement” for your life, based on your current spending pattern. Then do another, based on your “survival budget”.

You’ll need a table or spreadsheet: money advisers at your local CAB (Citizens Advice) can provide a form.

Putting it in perspective: “key ratios”

Now analyse your total debt relative to your income; also to your assets. What multiple of your net monthly income is your total debt? What percentage of your net worth? These are what I call your personal “key ratios”.

Now you are in a better position to develop your options and choose the solution that works for you.

Discretionary income

A final question: what’s your discretionary income? What’s left after tax and essential expenditure? (Not after your usual expenditure: the answer to that question might be zero, as it was for me)

Whether you think you can repay debts in full or make a partial offer, you’ll need to maximise this “discretionary income”. That’ll involve tough decisions about “needs versus wants”: between what’s essential to your life and what you see as essential to your lifestyle.


The above is an extract from Chapter 5 of my book “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way”

Want to know more?

“Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way”, is now available as a multi-format eBook, to sample (first 20% free) or buy, at Smashwords:

It is also in the Kindle store but only the first 10% is free (sorry: Amazon’s rules, not mine).



In my book “Back to the Black”, I highlight the need to classify your debts in two main groups. Priority debts have to be paid first, of course, because non-payment could cause you to lose your home, or essential services, or even your liberty. I specify which debts come into this category.

The rest are non-priority debts. In my experience, most of these are negotiable if you cannot find a way to pay them in full.

Here’s an extract from Chapter 10 of the book.


Classifying debts

While you were doing your “reality check” you will, I hope, have classified your debts into priority and non-priority. Priority debts will mostly, if not totally, consist of any arrears you may have built up in the essential areas of keeping a roof over your head (mortgage or rent), the associated taxes (Council Tax in Great Britain or domestic rates in Northern Ireland) and essential utilities, i.e. gas, electricity and water. (Phone rental has often been classed as a utility but it doesn’t qualify as a priority debt for this purpose, whether it is landline or mobile or broadband). There are also some other categories of arrears that could in the worst case land you in prison for non-payment, so we class them as priority debts too; they include court fines and child maintenance.

Negotiating non-priority debts

On non-priority debts – and most credit debts come into this category – one option is what I call Plan C, i.e. “Negotiate a Deal”.

Plan C involves negotiating not only for time while you put the deal together, but also for a discounted settlement on the non-priority debts. Your creditors, however, may be prepared to freeze further interest payments and late-payment charges, while you are putting your plan together and also while you are in the process of paying off any deal that might be agreed.

It may be that you have some funds available and could make an offer for “full and final settlement”. The word “full” in this context means that the debt is acknowledged by the creditor as being “paid in full” or “satisfied in full”; you are paying a lump sum, though you are paying less than the full amount. The funds you have available might come from friends and family, or maybe from the lump-sum element of cashing in an occupational pension, depending on your age (I was lucky enough – and old enough – to be able to do the latter). More usually, though, you’ll make an offer for payment in instalments.

Co-ordinating the responses

However, if you do decide to go for “full and final settlement,” then bear in mind that you will be negotiating on several fronts and not everyone will agree at the same time; a tricky situation. What you want to avoid at all costs is to have agreed with some creditors, paid them the lump sums agreed, and then to be forced into bankruptcy anyway if other substantial creditors would not agree to a negotiated settlement. That’s why you’ll find that one of my standard letters in “Resources” caters for the situation where you have agreed a deal with one or more creditors but need to delay payment of the sum agreed pending agreement from other creditors. For this particular strategy, therefore – i.e. Plan C offering lump-sum for full and final settlement – my usual warning is louder than ever: take advice.

Some creditors will be reasonable and flexible but others will be intransigent and will play hardball. However, once you have decided that you are going to take action about your debt situation, you should inform your creditors of your situation and ask them for a moratorium on interest and charges.

[the book contains a template for a standard letter to handle this and many other situations.]

Avoid the phone

At the risk of yet more repetition, this is where I say again, “don’t negotiate on the phone; do it in writing.” It is simply not necessary to pick up the phone whenever creditors phone with demands and threats; that is a stress you can do without. In Chapter 2 (“Mind over matter”) I discussed the extra stress of dealing with phone demands; even if you might say that you can handle the stress, there is another very practical reason for doing it this way. If you negotiate on the phone, and if at a later date you find that the creditor’s recall of that conversation is not the same as yours (surprise, surprise), you will have no record of what was said or what was agreed. So let those calls go through to voicemail, but then respond promptly in writing to any messages left. Do it all in writing; it’s more work, of course, but the outcomes – not only for your debt management plan but also for your state of mind – will be better.

Keep copies

Needless to say, keep copies of everything. The fact that you are able to refer to the content and the dates of all previous correspondence is worth its weight in gold. Get that lever-arch file; if you have many creditors you’ll soon fill it. Of course you will have kept copies of your outgoing letters on your computer, but when you go for meetings with your adviser it will be very helpful for that adviser to be able to scan a paper record of all the correspondence, both incoming and outgoing.

“The left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing”

Something I learned is that, while you are negotiating with a creditor, they might simultaneously instruct intermediaries to collect on their behalf. This might be policy, it might not, so be aware of the fact that the left hand might not know what the right is doing within the creditor company. If this happens, simply refer them back to previous correspondence (even sending copies of it) in a polite way. This way you retain, if not the moral high ground, at least the efficient high ground. Don’t assume everyone is super-efficient. Poor communication within a creditor company and between them and their intermediaries can work in your favour, if you are patient.


Talking of left and right hands … and nothing to do with debt: I can’t help repeating what was once said about the jazz pianist Erroll Garner, who at times played right on the centre of the beat with his left hand, while playing way behind the beat with his right hand:

“His left hand knew what his right was doing but it didn’t care.”

Want to know more?

“Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way”, is now available to sample (first 20% free) or buy as a multi-format ebook, at Smashwords:

… and is now also on the Kindle catalogue. (search under the title or under “MacMahon”; sample first 10% free)


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:



A recent news item (Channel 4 News, I think) flagged up a potentially alarming problem that’s been caused by the recession. (Yes, that’ll be the recession that the experts say is now officially over. Try telling that to someone who has lost their job.)


What’s the problem? According to a report by the charity Shelter, there’s been a large increase – possibly 50% in a year – in the number of people using credit cards to pay their mortgage or rent.


Does this affect owner-occupiers? Or tenants? Or both?


According to the BBC website, the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) suggests that the problem has been sensationalised by the media. That may be true. It would not be the first time. I should point out the obvious, however: the CML’s concern is only for mortgages. What Shelter describes may well be more of a problem for tenants than for homeowners. Mortgage rates are exceptionally low at present, so it’s less likely that an owner-occupier will have difficulty meeting housing costs, other things being equal. Also mortgage payments are normally taken on a direct debit, the CML says.


The reduction in housing costs caused by low mortgage rates has not yet been mirrored in reduced rents (why not?? Logic tells me it should be). Therefore, other things again being equal (which they never are) a tenant is more likely to be tempted to solve a short-term cash-flow problem by paying the rent with a credit card.


Is the story true?


“In the current climate”, I would not be surprised if there has been an increase in the number using cards. But has the increase really been 50% in a year? That’s massive. What they say, if you read the various reports, is that it’s gone from 4% to 6% and that is indeed an increase of 50%.


Firstly, you’d have to ask how big was the sample; obviously they didn’t interview everyone in the country (well, they didn’t ask me, anyway). And secondly, here’s a bit of a giveaway. Last year’s survey calculated the number of households, rather than individuals, that fell into this category. However, “the figure for households has not been calculated this year”, according to the report. So are we comparing apples with oranges, to make a point?


So is it safe to pay with a credit card?


Back to the question at the top of this post; is it safe to use a credit card to pay your rent or (less likely) your mortgage? The answer is a cautious yes, but only under certain circumstances. Credit cards do not have the astronomically high interest rates of payday loans, but the principle is the same. IF there is no alternative, and IF you are 100% sure you can pay off the card in full before the interest kicks in (you have 4-6 weeks to do that) then fine. If not, then as I have said many times before … get help from one of the debt advice agencies (for example Citizens Advice, or Consumer Credit Counselling Services, or National Debtline) and put together a plan. If you don’t, you could find yourself on a slippery slope.


I’ll be following up this story. “Watch this space”, as the saying goes.






Here’s a piece on the website of Shelter, who produced the original report:


And here’s an item about the story on the BBC website:




My book “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way” is now available to sample or buy, as a multi-format e-book, at: