By Grace Brownfield, Senior Public Policy Advocate

In the UK, we assume that people will have enough money to cover the basics: to pay their essential household bills such as their rent or mortgage, energy and water costs, and council tax.

However, in 2017 two in five people who came to us for help were in arrears on one or more essential household bill. And, as our new briefing Behind on the Basics sets out, across the wider population we estimate there are 3 million people who fell behind on these bills last year.

These figures are worrying enough. But is there also a wider problem we need to be concerned about? One where many people are only staying out of arrears by taking on credit?

Borrowing to pay the rent

To test this, we looked at the experience of clients who rented their home.

We found that people without rent arrears had significantly higher levels of borrowing relative to their income (77%) than people who did have rent arrears (55%).

The highest average level of borrowing compared to income was among those who rented privately and did not have rent arrears (80%).

Although we can’t say for certain, this suggests that some people — particularly those renting privately — are using credit to stop themselves from falling into rent arrears.

The nature of the private rental market — which often lacks security of tenure and where little forbearance may be given to those in arrears — may make people particularly scared of the consequences of falling behind.

Many people are faced with the choice of borrowing or getting into arrears, yet both of these can trap people in a cycle of increasing debt.

If people struggle to pay essential bills one month, they’ll certainly struggle the next month, often due to the high interest and charges from borrowing credit which builds up on top of their bills.

Creditors, utilities providers and landlords may be paid for now, but it’s unlikely to be sustainable and may be storing up problems for their customers in the future.

Who is most at risk?

Our research found that those on lower incomes, younger people, renters or people with a particular vulnerability (such as a health condition) were more likely to be falling behind on the basics.

It’s no coincidence that these groups of people were more likely to be feeling the effects of a squeeze on incomes, insecure work and regular income shocks — all of which increase the risk of falling into arrears.

One of the more shocking findings of our research was that those on those on zero-hours contracts were twice as likely[i] to have fallen behind on essential household bills in the last 12 months, than those who worked full time.[ii] They were also only slightly less likely to have fallen behind than those who were unemployed — showing how precarious insecure work can be.

[i] 12% of those who worked a zero hours contract had fallen behind on essential household bills in the last 12 months, and 14% of those whose income changed month to month had; compared to 6% of those who worked full time.

[ii] StepChange commissioned YouGov plc to conduct general population research. Total sample size was 5,052 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 13th — 18th December 2017. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

What can be done to help?

Our briefing sets out what needs to be done to better support those in arrears and to reduce the risk of people falling behind in the first place. As you would expect, a big part of this is about increasing incomes and reducing costs, so people can afford to pay for the essentials.

However, there are also opportunities for utilities providers, creditors and landlords to do things differently to help people stay out of arrears. Early findings from trials of supported rent flexibility, for example, have indicated that initiatives such as this can help people keep up with their rent.

Under this scheme, housing associations helped tenants identify and manage their financial pressure points over the year by agreeing a personalised schedule of rent over- and underpayments.

By understanding people’s needs and thinking creatively, there is potential to develop different approaches to the payment of bills, which better reflect the way in which people receive their income, and which takes into account the financial difficulties many households are facing. Doing so could make a huge difference to those struggling with the basics now and in the future.

To read more about our findings on households in arrears, download the full Behind on the Basics briefing.


[i] 12% of those who worked a zero hours contract had fallen behind on essential household bills in the last 12 months, and 14% of those whose income changed month to month had; compared to 6% of those who worked full time.

[ii] StepChange commissioned YouGov plc to conduct general population research. Total sample size was 5,052 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 13th — 18th December 2017. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

StepChange Debt Charity

Working towards a society free from problem debt

StepChange Debt Charity

Written by

We provide free, impartial debt advice and solutions to anyone struggling with debt problems in the UK.

StepChange Debt Charity

Working towards a society free from problem debt

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade