Over 10 million people in the UK are struggling to pay their bills and credit repayments as the cost of living continues to squeeze households.
The number of adults struggling is estimated to have increased by 3.1 million since May 2022, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) said, jumping from around 7.8 million (15%) in May last year to 10.9 million (21%) in January 2023.
The number of adults who missed bills or loan payments in at least three of the last six months has also gone up by 1.4 million, from 4.2 million to 5.6 million over the same period.
“This should come as no surprise as increases in interest rates have pushed mortgage bills and the costs of other forms of debt much higher than people have been used to,” Karen Noye, mortgage expert at Quilter, said.
“While the pandemic no doubt caused many financial shocks, particularly for the self-employed, the cost of living crisis arguably has played a much greater role in damaging people’s financial wellbeing.
“The convergence of higher living costs and higher interest rates has pushed people’s finances right to the edge and sometimes over. This is having a huge impact on our mental wellbeing with the FCA finding that around half of the UK are more stressed or anxious about money.”
The financial regulator also found that 29% of adults with a mortgage and 34% of renters had experienced payment increases in the six months to January this year.
Around 28.4 million people in January 2023 felt more anxious or stressed due to the rising cost of living than six months earlier, the regulator said.
One woman told the survey she had used credit to pay for car repairs, home insurance and food shopping.
Another said she had used all her savings to fill her oil tank and she relied on oil to heat her home.
Another woman said she had taken her son off her motor insurance.
A man told the survey he had cancelled his insurance and social outings to make ends meet and was also eating less.
And a woman said she had been seeing less of her family because of the cost of driving long distances to see them. She had also stopped playing sport and participating in clubs.
There were also signs of some people reducing their insurance cover as a way to ease general living costs pressures — which could leave them worse off or in difficulty if something goes wrong.
Among people who had insurance and protection policies last spring, 8% had cancelled one or more policies and 7% had reduced their level of cover, specifically to save money due to rising living costs, in the six months to January this year.
“Millions more people have found themselves in financial hot water within the space of a year as the daily battle against rising prices and borrowing costs takes its toll,” Myron Jobson, senior personal finance analyst at Interactive Investor, said.
“Many Britons have gone through different financial phases in a short period of time at when the unprecedented has seemingly become the norm — forcing them to pivot several times and some stark decisions concerning their budget to maintain financial resilience.
“Many of those who were fortunate enough to become accidental savers during the pandemic have seen their bumper savings depleted in the face of red-hot inflation.”
The FCA is reminding borrowers that they can get help from their lenders if they are struggling to keep up with payments.
The regulator said it has repeatedly reminded firms of the importance of supporting their customers and working with them to solve problems with payment, including by writing to industry bosses to make sure they are aware of the regulator’s expectations.
Where firms have not supported their customers properly, the FCA has told them to make changes.
A UK Finance spokesperson said: “The banking and finance industry is fully committed to supporting customers who are struggling with repayments and today’s report from the FCA highlights that there is a range of tailored support available. Lenders are proactively contacting customers and will always work with them to find the right solution for their particular needs and circumstances.
“Anyone who is worried about their financial situation should contact their lender as soon as possible to discuss the options available. Discussing your options with your lender will not affect your credit rating.”
Just over one in 10 (11%) adults surveyed said they had put off dealing with financial matters, such as leaving correspondence unopened or ignoring warning letters.
Sheldon Mills, executive director of consumers and competition at the FCA, said: “Our research highlights the real impact the rising cost of living is having on people’s ability to keep up with their bills, although we are pleased to see that people have been accessing help and advice.
“If you’re concerned about your finances, you do not need to worry alone. We’ve told lenders that they should provide support tailored to your needs.
“And, if you find yourself in debt or want to know more about how to manage your finances, free expert advice is available.
“We will continue to act quickly to make sure financial firms help their customers who are facing financial difficulty or are worried they might be soon.”