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Financial support service provision

Developing more effective financial support service provision in the UK

Simon McNair, Centre for Decision Research, Leeds University Business School

Dr Simon McNair

This project was funded as part of a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellowship awarded to Simon McNair from April 2016-2019. Project Number: ECF-2015-067

Background and Rationale

Financial strain is pervasive in the UK, underlining the need for effective financial support services.

The Bank of England estimates that 57% of UK households carry unsecured consumer credit debt (Bank of England, 2018). While many households may carry consumer debts without problem, other research suggests that one in four UK households can be classed as “financially squeezed”, that is, at acute risk of financial detriment should they experience a sudden change in their financial circumstances (eg ill-health, redundancy, or separation) (Money Advice Service, 2016).

In total, it is estimated that UK households currently owe £15,383 in unsecured debt, an increase of £886 on the previous year (Trade Union Congress, 2019); this puts unsecured debt as a proportion of household income at 30.4%, higher than the proportion seen prior to the 2008 financial crash (27.55), and the highest on record. For the poorest in society, this proportion doubled from 55% to 110% between 2015 and 2017 (Centre for Responsible Credit, 2018).

Debt is the second most frequent issue dealt with by Citizens Advice, who assisted with 82,962 new debt-related issues in February 2019 alone, up 7% on the same month a year previously (Citizens Advice, 2019). In the year to February 2019, Citizens Advice dealt with 2,491 new debt issues every working day (The Money Charity, 2019). Debt advice provided by Citizens Advice remains a critical service, and one that offers thousands of people support, and hope.

With recent calls by the UK’s Money and Pension Service (formerly Money Advice Service) calling for debt advice to integrate financial capability support, a specific need is to help debt advice clients not only develop financial resiliency, but also psychological resiliency. Emotional burdens such as stress, self-conscious feelings of guilt or shame, and low self-confidence often interfere with how people confront their financial issues and undermine attempts to overcome these issues. These burdens can also act as barriers between debt advisors and their clients.

In response to this, researchers at the Centre for Decision Research at Leeds University Business School embarked on a three-year research project (2016 – 2019) with partners at Citizens Advice in Bradford and Leeds to design, develop, and evaluate an advice resource that provides information and support to debt advice clients who are struggling with the kinds of emotional burdens listed above.

Project Overview

The project proceeded in three major phases. In Phase 1 (2016) we held one-to-one interviews with debt advice clients and advisors at Citizens Advice in Leeds and Bradford. The aim of these interviews was to assess the most prevalent types of emotional concerns typically facing clients experiencing financial difficulty. Phase 1 yielded a wealth of insights and detail which we then, in Phase 2, used as a foundation to inform the design and content of the advice resource.

By completion of Phase 2 (2017) we had settled on a final design for our advice resource, a 16-page full-colour booklet we have called “Money Worries (And how to beat them)”. The booklet comprises five sections, each dealing with a prominent concern as evidenced during our Phase 1 interviews with clients and advisors:

Section 1 - Stress : how to recognise it and combat it in the heat of the moment
Section 2 - Self-conscious feelings : understanding how shame, guilt, and embarrassment affect behaviour
Section 3 - Self-criticism : how to challenge negative thinking
Section 4 - Step-by-step : breaking goals down into manageable steps
Section 5 - Keeping check : reflecting on progress

Finally, in Phase 3 (2018-2019) we integrated the Money Worries booklet into debt advice service provision at Citizens Advice in Bradford and Leeds in order to evaluate if receiving the booklet could offer clients additional benefit. Incoming debt advice clients were selected at-random to receive the Money Worries booklet at the end of their initial debt advice appointment. We assessed clients’ emotional wellbeing before, and one month after, their initial debt advice appointment, comparing clients who did and did not receive the booklet.

You can watch the short video below to find out more about this project.

Project Summary and Outputs

  • Money Worries and How to Beat Them - Advice booklet designed as part of the project that aims to help clients recognise and understand the kinds of emotional impacts debt can have, as well as offer advice about how to counteract these impacts.
  • Money Worries - Project Report - includes key findings and recommendations.

The below video provides an overview of the project and the impact the advice booklet has had on Citizens Advice clients.

 Related outputs:


Dr Simon McNair
Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow
Centre for Decision Research