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Alarm at growing number of working people in UK ‘struggling to make ends meet’

<span>Advisers taking calls at StepChange in Leeds. The charity has seen a rise in the number of people seeking help.</span><span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Advisers taking calls at StepChange in Leeds. The charity has seen a rise in the number of people seeking help.Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

A rising number of people in full-time work, including those in jobs such as nursing, have been seeking advice on debt, amid warnings that a growing cohort of younger workers is struggling to make ends meet.

Figures seen by the Observer suggest rising rents and the use of credit to cope with the cost of living crisis in recent years are driving more full-time workers to seek help.

Britain’s largest debt advice service has sounded the alarm, saying a new generation of workers is stuck in debt. StepChange advised 183,403 people last year – a 10% increase on 2022 – the equivalent of almost one new client every three minutes.

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It included a steady increase in the proportion of full-time employees seeking help, up from 38% in 2021 to 44% by the end of last year. It said it was working with a widening group of people being dragged into debt problems and “negative budgets”, where their income no longer covers basic outgoings. Nurses, call-centre staff and similar white-collar workers are among them.

Almost 3 million people in full-time work in the UK are in problem debt (where they are unable to afford debt repayments), according to analysis in its forthcoming report, In Work, But Still in Debt. About a fifth of the people in full-time work that it advises have a negative budget. About a quarter said that cost of living increases were the primary reason for debt.

There also appears to be a worrying amount of debt among workers under 40, who are more likely to have faced significant rent increases in recent years. The age group was disproportionately represented among those who sought the charity’s help. About two in five of StepChange’s clients in full-time work are renting their home in the private sector.

While ministers have been hailing falling inflation, experts at the charity fear that many working households have been coping with the higher cost of living by using up savings and relying on credit cards.

“The cost of living crisis has expanded the proportion of the income bands that are vulnerable to falling into debt,” said Peter Tutton, StepChange’s head of policy. “We’ve seen more people come to us who have what we call a negative budget. At the other end, we’re seeing people on slightly higher incomes being pulled into debt advice.

“We continue to see more and more people in the private rented sector. As of yet, we’re not seeing a spike in people with mortgages in the same way that we did after the 2008-09 recession. A disproportionate number of our clients who are in full-time employment are 18 to 24 years of age. The twin problems of cost of living increases and lower pay with insecure work are particularly affecting younger workers.

“We’ll see people who are working in offices, people working in call centres, people who are working in semi-skilled professions – people who are doing ordinary, everyday jobs are among those struggling to make ends meet.”

The warnings from the charity echo similar work by Citizens Advice, which has been raising the issue of negative budgets for some time. Its own research found that, of all households that do not have the income to cover their basic expenses, a third – more than 600,000 – include someone who is in work. More than half of these households include someone who is working full time.

Related: Fears of spiralling debt as ‘buy now pay later’ credit quadruples in UK

“Too often we hear that people struggling just need to ‘work harder’ to get by,” said Morgan Wild, interim director of policy at Citizens Advice. “But what’s clear from our data is that being in work is no guarantee of making ends meet at the end of each month. High costs – from housing to energy and other bills – are pushing people into the red, no matter what they do. We know wages and benefits going up a bit will help some, but more needs to be done to tackle the soaring cost of essentials. People need to have security that their hard work will pay off in balancing their budgets.”

A government spokesperson said: “There are 1.1m fewer people living in absolute poverty compared with 2010. Our £108bn cost of living package supported people through pressures driven by the impact of the pandemic and war in Ukraine. Now we have turned a corner, by cutting taxes and raising the national living wage, we are boosting 2 million people’s pay by £1,800 over a year and making sure work always pays, while continuing to fund debt advice at record levels in England.”