Almost 8 million people have been overlooked during the cost of living crisis and are now on the brink of serious hardship, Which? is warning.
It comes as new research by the consumer champion identifies 15 per cent of the UK population who are more likely to have turned to credit and buy now pay later schemes (BNPL) during the crisis. These people are at risk of significant financial and mental harm in the months and years ahead as interest rates continue to rise.
Which? surveyed 4,000 people across the UK to find out how different groups of consumers are coping – financially, physically and mentally – with the cost of living crisis. The research highlights that while the vast majority of consumers have been affected by the cost of living crisis, this pain is not felt equally.
The study identified six distinct groups of consumers who are experiencing the cost of living crisis in different ways. These groups are; ‘Drained and Desperate’, ‘Anxious and At Risk’, ‘Cut Off By Cut Backs’, ‘Fretting About the Future’, ‘Looking out for Loved Ones’ and ‘Affluent and Apathetic’.
While much of the government and policymakers’ focus has rightly been on supporting the ‘Drained and Desperate’ group – who are more likely to have household incomes of less than £20,000 and have already had to make severe financial cutbacks, such as skipping meals and not turning on the heating. Outside of any universal support available like the government’s support for energy bills, this ‘Anxious and At Risk’ category has been largely overlooked.
The ‘Anxious and At Risk’ group contains 7.9 million adults – 15 per cent of the UK population. They tend to be from larger households with children at home and are struggling financially but have just managed to keep afloat by using credit.
However, unlike the ‘Drained and Desperate’ group, they are much more likely to have borrowed money to maintain basic living standards than to have cut back on essentials, such as food and energy.
Six in ten (59%) have increased their debt in the last six months – the highest amongst all groups.They are also more than twice as likely (36%) as the UK population (14%) to have used buy now pay later schemes.
With interest rates continuing to rise, it is only a matter of time before this group is unable to keep up this cycle of borrowing and fall into financial difficulty.
One woman from northern England in this ‘Anxious and At Risk’ group said: “I have to use credit to make ends meet and I worry about debt. I have no safety net for emergencies and I will have to work past state pension age.”
Four in 10 (38%) of this group have a mortgage or loan on their home and worryingly, one fifth (21%) of those with a mortgage are on a variable tracker mortgage – meaning their rates are hiked every time the Bank of England base rate rises.
The Bank of England has raised interest rates significantly in the last year in attempts to combat inflation, meaning those on fixed-rate mortgages who are remortgaging this year will also be faced with massive hikes to their mortgage payments. This could be a major tipping point for ‘Anxious and At Risk’ households.
It is also hugely concerning that millions are heavily relying on BNPL schemes. Previous Which? research shows that many BNPL users do not realise they are taking on debt or consider the prospect of missing payments.
The government must not delay plans to introduce changes to the BNPL industry and ensure that consumers are given stronger safeguards to protect them. This needs to include greater marketing transparency, information about the risks of missed payments and consumer credit checks.
At such a difficult financial time, businesses must also do everything in their power to ease pressures on household budgets. Which? is calling on essential businesses – energy firms, broadband providers and supermarkets – to do more to help their customers and ensure they are providing value for money.
For example, supermarkets need to make budget line items that support a healthy diet widely available – particularly in convenience stores. Telecoms firms must cancel future mid-contract price hikes and energy firms need to ensure their customer service departments are fully staffed and able to support any customers who are struggling to make ends meet.
Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy, said:
“Our research reveals that almost eight million people have been left balancing on a financial knife-edge.
“Until now, the government and policymakers have rightly focused on supporting the millions who are already failing to make ends meet, but this ‘Anxious and At Risk’ group is a ticking time bomb. They are far more likely to have relied on borrowing to make ends meet but with interest rates continuing to rise, it’s only a matter of time before they find themselves facing serious hardship.
“The government must help those most in need by tightening regulation on buy now pay later to stop unaffordable lending and ensuring essential businesses are doing everything in their power to ease pressures on household finances.”
Notes to editors
Basis on behalf of Which? surveyed 4,000 nationally representative consumers within the UK in March 2023 to understand the impacts of the cost of living crisis, and how it has influenced consumer behaviour.
Statistical segmentation analysis of the survey data was performed by identifying the key variables from the questions, grouping these into common factors using factor analysis, and, forming the segments using cluster analysis..
Previous Which? research with BNPL users, published in January 2022, found that many shoppers do not fully understand the products they are using, often describing BNPL as a ‘way to pay’ or ‘money management tool’ rather than understanding it as a form of debt. Further details are available here: https://www.which.co.uk/
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