21 January 2019

The ‘Dos’ And ‘Don’ts’ Of Debt-Talk

4 min read

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Becky O'Connor

Personal Finance Specialist


“Blue Monday” is the third Monday of January, so-called because it is meant to be the most depressing day of the year.

This is due to a combination of factors – but one of these factors is post-Christmas debt levels – they tend to be higher than at other times of year.

Becky O’Connor, personal finance specialist for Royal London, said: “Debt can go from manageable to unmanageable quickly and it can happen to anyone. If someone close has had a hard time lately, perhaps a job loss, drop in income or sudden increase in outgoings, they might find it hard to open up. They might struggle with feeling ashamed of their debt, or of not knowing what to do. You can help by making them feel comfortable enough to talk. This is often the first step to climbing out of debt.”

As part of its work on financial capability, the mutual insurer has put together some tips on how to approach the subject of debt with a relative or friend who you think might be struggling in silence with debt worries, using some basic counselling techniques.


- Use empathy and open up first about your own situation first to encourage this, for example: “Things are usually pretty tight for me in January and I find it quite difficult to manage. How about you?”

- Be solutions-focused. Offer practical suggestions. This includes the suggestion to call up lenders to explain any difficult or mitigating circumstances, such as job loss or bereavement. Lenders can agree to reduce repayments for a period of time if affordability is an issue, or sometimes, depending on circumstances, for interest to be frozen. Offering details of where to seek expert and understanding advice, for instance, from specialist charities such as StepChange – or Mind - if he or she is also struggling with mental ill health as a result. 

- Be encouraging and optimistic. They will get through this. They’ve made an important first step even acknowledging their debt openly. It might take a bit of time to sort but it is possible.

- Listen. This means giving someone the space and time to talk about it. It might not all come flooding out in one go. Leave some conversational gaps.

- Ask them if they need any help with reading paperwork or terms and conditions. Particularly if they are either quite young and not yet very financially experienced or quite elderly and struggling with masses of documentation.

- Keep the lines of communication open (without making them feel pressured). Ask them again in a week or two how things are going?

- Tell them about your own budgeting tactics, ways you try to save and avoid spending. They might get some good ideas from you. The things you say might sound obvious to you and you might assume everyone does them, but they might be brand new insights to your friend or relative.


- Go on about your own experiences. While a degree of empathy is useful, if you just talk about how you “know how they feel” or say “that’s the same thing that happened to me”, you risk making them less likely to open up.

- Imply judgment, disappointment or exasperation. The chances are your loved one already feels bad enough about their debt levels without worrying about your thoughts and feelings towards them too. Saying things like: “how on earth did you manage to get into so much debt?”, “that’s horrendous”, etc. will only make them sink further into a pit of shame.

- Look shocked if someone discloses the amount they owe and you can’t believe how high it is. If it sounds like a lot of money, you can calmly acknowledge that this “sounds like it might be a struggle to pay off” and ask if they are managing their repayments OK. Try to maintain a neutral but caring expression.

- Assume a certain level of financial knowledge – it varies massively among people of different ages, incomes and interest levels. So use “interest rate” rather than “APR”, for example. But equally….

- Try not to patronise. Saying “sorry, do you not know what an APR is? Let me explain” sounds helpful enough on the face of it but might make someone feel small and stupid.

- Constantly hound them for progress updates. You can go from being a helpful support to an extra pressure if you ask them regularly about their debt situation, or if it is the only thing you talk about.

- Instantly offer to bail them out. You might decide that this is the best course of action for you and your loved one after careful consideration, but it is sensible to consider other options for them to independently manage repayments on their own first.

For further information please contact:

Lucy Field, Press Officer

About Royal London:

Royal London is the largest mutual life, pensions and investment company in the UK, with funds under management of £117 billion, 8.8 million policies in force and 3,745 employees. Figures quoted are as at 30 June 2018.