Times are tight but there is help available

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Christmas and New Year can hit families hard in the pocket.

Trying to give the wee ones the kind of Christmas they deserve sometimes leads parents to set aside common sense for a couple of weeks and spend, spend, spend with little or no thought for the long-term future.

Sure, junior might get the gift he’s been bending your ear about for weeks on end, but he could be in a bit of a bind when mum and dad realise they have not got enough cash left in the bank to get him a new pair of school shoes when he starts back for the new term.

Or, in the worst case scenario, have him go hungry because essential food money was frittered away on frivolous gifts just a few weeks earlier.

The post festive hangover is nothing new, but the current economic situation means it is becoming a real problem for a lot more of us.

Even families where both parents work and earn a decent wage can find themselves going into debt.

As they max out credit card after credit card they start to weigh up their options and even consider taking their child’s new Christmas present to Cash Converters to get some much-needed cash in hand.

Thankfully Falkirk Council, an organisation which can certainly empathise with families because of its own financial troubles, has a dedicated team of debt advice experts at hand to help people keep the wolves from the door and their possessions in their living rooms.

Recent figures for the Falkirk area show nearly 43 per cent of households have to get by on an income of less than £20,000 a year, while a third of households have to survive on less than £16,000.

Tackling poverty is a key part of the council’s Towards a Fairer Falkirk strategy to reduce the levels of debt across the area and maximise the income of households.

The debt advice team works hand in hand with this strategy.

To access the service an initial appointment is made to see what help is needed and then, depending on circumstances, further arrangements are made to gather further information. Home visits are also available.

A council spokesman said: “Spiralling debt problems and financial worries can be managed according to our debt advice team, who remind residents of the free, impartial and confidential support service they offer throughout the year.

“In the post Christmas slump, many families and individuals find the costs incurred by festivities remind them of how far they may be in debt and how difficult it can be to cope.”

In the period April 2015 to March 2016, the team managed debts totalling £8.3 million and helped more than 700 people in difficult or dangerous financial circumstances – some who even found themselves under threat of eviction, repossession or court action – because of debt.

Debt can affect almost anyone of any demographic or personal circumstances and, according to the Scotland Institute, is on the increase across the country with the average level of debt per Scottish household standing at £4000 in 2016 compared with £2200 back in 2008.

Of the 704 clients the debt advice team dealt with over that time the biggest debt problem they had, in monetary terms, was mortgages, with £3.34 million of debt managed on behalf of householders.

Debt built up through credit cards was next, with people getting help to manage a total of £720,000. This was followed by council tax, which accounted for £670,000, bank loans £460,000, personal loans £260,000, gas and electricity bills £160,000 and mobile phone bills £50,000.

Statistics gathered over the 2015/16 period highlight no specific trends concerning gender or age group.

The team helped 261 male clients, 286 females and 157 couples and the age group which presented most often were those in the range of 31 to 40 with 247 cases, then those aged 21 to 30 with 212 and those aged between 41 and 50 with 205.

There were 516 single person cases, 161 cases of lone parents with dependents and 131 cases of couples with dependents.

The team dealt with 205 cases featuring a person who was in full-time employment, 253 cases where the client was classed as unemployed, with 205 unable to work due to ill health.

Levels of debt varied, with the majority of cases – 670 – concerning figures under £10,000. There were 133 cases between £10,000 and £20,000 and 23 cases over £100,000.

Council leader Craig Martin said: “Ignoring debt will not make it go away. However, dealing with it using the right support can reduce its devastating impact on families and individuals.

“Our debt advice team is highly professional and offer a service that is completely free, impartial and confidential to any local residents.

“They can work with creditors directly to negotiate on your behalf and often can intervene almost immediately in more difficult and threatening situations.

“The team will always give their advice based on the interests of the individual and will work with them to help as far as possible.”

The types of debt the team can advise on is comprehensive and includes rent and mortgage arrears, council tax, personal loans, hire purchase, credit and store cards, payday loans and catalogues.

To get in touch with the debt advice team visit www.falkirk.gov.uk/moneyadvice, email debtadvice@falkirk.gov.uk or call (01324) 506735.