My debt problems started in 2011 after I split from my long-term partner. He made a false accusation to the authorities to say that I had been fraudulently claiming benefits. The authorities investigated and found no evidence of fraud. But they did calculate an overpayment and demanded that it be repaid. They also stopped my benefits for a period. Because of that, I fell into arrears on the rent, council tax and other bills and we faced eviction from the house. Almost every penny went on basic bills or on paying off the debt, which had reached nearly £27,000.
I had no job, so the four of us were living only on Child Benefit and Child Tax Credits – just £109 per week with £10 a week for food. I thought about going through the bins at the back of the supermarket, though I couldn’t bring myself to do it. That shows how debt makes you think. Instead of just going to one shop, I would traipse around several just to see if I could save 30p on a tin of beans. We went through the winter without turning the heating on, just using blankets. The children were freezing, but we didn’t have any choice.
Eventually, I did get the benefits back and I managed to get a job, which was good, as I feared that the benefits might stop again. But it was still hard, as I was having to make payments and was threatened with being taken to court. I didn’t know where to go, so I confided in my manager at work. She suggested I contact Liz at Riverside Money Advice, which I did in 2013.
Before the first meeting, Liz told me to bring the paperwork about everything I owe, so that we could go through it together.
I was given a food bank voucher, which was a big help. We then met every few months. She would help me work out the best way to use my money to bring the debts down, and helped me to get better deals on my gas, electricity and phone bills. I got a bus pass instead of paying fares each time. With my permission she would phone my creditors and because she knew what to say, could make progress, whereas I would get nowhere. Above all, Liz took time to understand my situation and work out what to do. She was there for me when a sudden need arose, such as dealing with bailiffs or going to court.
The team also brought me a Christmas hamper, which I certainly didn’t expect but did appreciate; without it, Christmas would have been grim.
After about a year, Liz suggested that I consider a Debt Relief Order. For that, I needed to get the debt below £20,000, which seemed a long way off. I got close a few times, but then more bills would come and the debt would climb again. But by November 2016 I was only two payments away. She gave me an advent calendar. It had a post-it note on the 22nd, which said “call me”. So, on that day, I called. She prepared the Debt Relief Order and sent it off.
A week later, a letter came back; the Debt Relief Order had been accepted. I was finally free of debt.
It’s not yet sunk in and part of me is still waiting for something to go wrong. But when I received the water bill this month, I was actually happy because I knew that I could pay it! There have been a few niggles, such as over council tax, but the Money Advice team are querying it for me. They’ve also informed the creditors about the Debt Relief Order, so there have been no more letters.
The support from Riverside Money Advice has been so important because I’ve been shown what I need to do and not just told. Getting clear of debt is a process; you need someone who will take the time to help you through it and not just give a one-off piece of advice. They can help you understand that you need to keep going. It will be hard but with the right support, you can get a result at the end.