Belfast Telegraph

Robert McNeill: Warnings on debt are just a bit rich

I've taken my bank to the Financial Services Ombudsman. They were overcharging me for some things and undercharging me for others, and putting my payments up and down by such elastic amounts that financial planning was impossible.

Week in, week out, they got their figures wrong, and it reached the stage where I treated any statement of my finances from them as an estimate rather than a calculation. They blamed their computers but, surely, whatever image problems bankers have these days, a minimum expectation is that they can count. That's an unrealistic expectation now.

Such weakening of trust, along with the crazy bonuses for bankers and businessmen, means we don't give a hoot aboot debt any more. It's too absurd. Attitudes have changed. A survey of 1,400 citizens found one in three felt there was no shame in debt. Just one in three? How can there be shame about debt? The Government is run on debt. The country is run on debt. Other than perhaps the fortunate few without a mortgage, we're all in debt. How else are we to get by?

The survey also said pawnbrokers had increased business in recent years, as desperate citizens try raising cash. Thirty-eight per cent believe there’s no shame in using one. Interesting. I'm not sure how pawnbrokers work, and fear it might be demeaning to have someone — I imagine him with fingerless gloves and a dripping nose — cast a beady eye over one's gewgaws.

The whole thing — brass balls an' all — seems irredeemably Victorian, though I dare say that, like bookmakers and other emporia of vague disrepute, they've updated themselves, and the chap behind the counter has washed his face and has a badge saying “Poverty Alleviation Consultant”.

Shopping in “budget” stores — mentioned elsewhere in another bombshell article on this page — is now acceptable to 92% of the lieges, while 82% don't mind haggling. That is has come to this! Haggling! I draw the line there. Even when blatantly ripped off, I just pay what I'm told, and walk away complaining to myself. It's cowardly but dignified.

But, other than cavilling at these excesses, I share the view about debt and bankruptcy (which one in five said was no cause for shame). Obviously, I'd rather be debt-free, but it's an unrealistic dream.

I do regret my credit card debt. I used to travel on planes and ferries more than now and, in the days before Switch, the easiest way to pay was by credit card. It made holidays seem free. But there's no such thing as a free holiday.



Extremely low rates of interest quoted by credit card companies mysteriously transmogrify into extremely high rates of interest. I don't even look at my statements, and I've got three credit cards. I haven't used them for ages and am still paying debts incurred years ago. I only took on the other two cards so I could shift my debt from one to another for interest-free periods — though they charge you large amounts for so doing.

It's all corrupt and flaky, but it's the basis of our economic system. The best advice you could give your children about keeping debt-free is: 1 Don't copy the Government, 2 Don't trust the banks, 3 Become very rich. Simple!

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