One in five now facing serious problems with their finances
New advice service launched in wake of shock figures regarding Ulster families' debts
Money is so tight in Northern Ireland that half of people here couldn't cope with an unexpected £300 bill, it has emerged.
New research shows the difficulties people here are facing, with the revelation that the annual disposable household income in Northern Ireland is almost £3,000 less than the UK average.
And one in five locals are likely to be in serious financial difficulty, compared to one in six elsewhere.
Citizens Advice Northern Ireland and the Money Advice Service have now launched a new debt advice facility for individuals and families in response to the growing crisis.
There are currently 26,000 people in Northern Ireland who are not getting any help with their debt burden.
"Citizens Advice is here to help people find a way forward with their problems," said the organisation's executive director Pol Callaghan.
"Every year, we help thousands of people with money and debt problems, but we know that many more cannot get the help they need.
"So we are delighted to launch this new service with the support of the Money Advice Service - so that we can help you find a way through."
He added: "Many people cannot stop thinking about their debt problems and this is a call for the 26,000 people we know are looking for help."
Mr Callaghan said that 62% of over indebted people here are in families, but many students, young workers and older people are also finding it tough with money.
"This service is here for everyone. We have designed a service available to people when they need it, how they need it," he said.
"All our advice is totally free, impartial and confidential.
"Thousands of people have felt a weight lifted off their shoulders by getting debt help and we can now help even more.
"Now is the time for people to take a first step towards a debt free future."
The service is available via phone, email and face to face appointments and can be accessed through any of the 30 frontline Citizens Advice offices across the province.
Money Advice Service Northern Ireland manager, Janine Maher, said the initiative aims to ensure that more people in Northern Ireland can get help with debt worries.
"Northern Ireland is one of the most vulnerable areas in the UK when it comes to levels of debt so it is vital that help is available for those that need it," she said.
"We know that debt advice works but currently only one in five people with financial difficulties seek advice.
"We are calling on everyone with problem debt or money worries, no matter how large or small, to access free advice as soon as possible."
Case study one
Full-time workers Marie and Paul are in their 40s, have a nine-year-old daughter and rent their home.
“I was paying minimum payments to my credit cards and loans but struggling to keep within my overdraft limit, so I contacted Citizens Advice,” said Marie.
“We completed a monthly budget planner by writing down all of our household income and expenditure — and irregular expenses like presents, annual rates bill, dentist bills, school uniform and trips.
“On paper we should’ve been managing, but we were overdrawn every month.
“When the overdraft became too high we previously took out loan agreements — but we didn’t want to take out another loan for a third time in seven years.
“The money advisor noted we weren’t making provision for irregular bills like house maintenance, e.g. the washing machine breaking down, Christmas presents, the annual holiday or MOT and car service.
“We now also realise how important it is to set aside money each month (for example in a separate bank account) to cover these other expenses when they arise.
“Citizens Advice helped us negotiate reduced payments with our creditors for a short period of time to allow us to get back on track.”
Case study two
Joanna is a single mum in her mid-30s with one teenage child; she works part-time and rents her home.
“Before my child was born, I had been working full-time for a number of years and I was reasonably well off and able to pay all of my bills,” she said.
“But on a reduced income, I found it difficult to pay even the minimum payments and my debt increased to £12,000, including credit cards, a catalogue debt and a personal loan.
“I answered a text from a fee-charging Debt Management Company and entered into a plan to try and pay off the debt because I was desperate.
“Most of my small monthly payment was taken up with fees and I realised it was going to take 20 years to pay off the debt, so I contacted Citizens Advice and opted for a Debt Relief Order because my circumstances weren’t going to change over the next few years.
“An advisor completed the online application for me and I paid the one-off £90 fee at the post office. That means my debts are put under a moratorium for 12 months and I hope to be debt free in a year.”