Let’s face our money problems with a bit of honesty

British people don’t like discussing money.

Bill Bryson pointed this out in his book, Notes from a Small Island. Bryson noted that Brits will rarely offer details about their wealth, even to their best mates, and will be deeply offended if asked. On the other hand, Americans will be happy to tell you their annual salary and investment portfolio before you’ve even offered your name.

My outlook is more closely aligned with the American view than with the British view. Although I would not post my annual salary on a blog, for instance, I would be happy to tell people, particularly friends and family, if they asked.

I am always quite surprised, therefore, when the media in Britain quite ruthlessly condemns anyone who discusses money in an open way. Brits, in my view, need to lighten up and be more open and honest about this subject. After all, individuals in Britain have, on average, more debt than other Europeans — and it’s easier to come to terms with dealing with debt if you’re able to talk about it.

Last year, a seemingly innocent story, which would not have registered in North America, created a flurry of condemnation, because it involved talking — well, in this case, complaining — about personal money problems. The writer, Rosie Millard — a former arts correspondent for the BBC, had written that she and her husband, were, despite her once high salary, in debt.

Unfortunately for Ms Millard, this resulted in several column inches being devoted to exposing her so-called “property empire”, which included a flat in London reputed to be worth more than £2.5million, and another flat in a nice area of Paris.

In one newspaper, according to an article on the ROSIE MILLARD DEBT FREE APPEAL website (not a real appeal), she told how her property dream turned into a nightmare. Spiralling debt (she was apparently about £40,000 in the red) forced the couple to put the family car, a Skoda, up for sale as the mortgage on the French apartment was “permanently in arrears”.

Her story did not inspire sympathy. People berated her for moaning about her debt when it was clear she was far better off than the average person.

While I agree she made a bit of a mockery out of people with real debt problems (if we believe the reports, in reality, she could have simply sold off one of her flats and lived comfortably for years) I applaud her for writing about her money trouble. There are a lot of people who find it difficult to make ends meet, even if they’re high earners.

Many young people, I believe, have been brain-washed into a life of rampant consumerism. If you’re a kid who grows up watching advertisements about the best toys, you’re going to crave the best toys. And those cravings won’t go away when you’re a teenager or when you leave school. So just about everyone in my generation, from ambitious city workers to low-income single mums, is likely to be a rampant consumer — spending the same amount, or more, money than they make.

If you’re a relatively high-income city worker, that means you might buy the car that other people in the office have, or splash out on a designer dress or handbag every once in a while. All of a sudden, you find yourself relying on credit cards, loans and overdrafts to pay your way. At the other end of the scale, single mums have to survive on money from the government and part-time jobs and can barely make ends meet. Yet their kids will still have birthdays and Christmas (or another religious holiday) is always around the corner, and it’s easy to think that buying your kids the best stuff will make them happy. So if they have to buy a birthday present in the same month their car breaks down or they need a new washing machine, then the debt starts to pile up.

Yet, very little is said about money trouble in the media. The media report the facts and figures about debt problems in Britain, but rarely do people stand up and voice their personal concerns.

But I think Brits are beginning to see that the problem is getting out of control and they are starting to tackle it.

Television shows like Pay Off Your Mortgage in 2 Years, and a new show from Channel 4, Your Money or Your Wife, highlight individuals with debt problems (or more debt than they would like) and how these individuals can work with an advisor to help them curb their spending and perhaps increase their income, with happy endings all around.

I think these programmes are great — people need to feel free to discuss debt problems, like any other problem, openly.

The only thing is, the shows often highlight individuals who have a fairly large source of income, assets and extravagant spending habits. This means that, with a little shove in the right direction, it is nearly impossible for the individual to fail to take control of their debt.

I think the far more common situation is people living on the bread-line, where all of their income goes on bills and loan repayment, not on things like Starbucks and car payments.  If one of these television presenters tried to help these people tackle their debt, I guarantee you they’d feel just as helpless as the rest of us.

When the British media begin to address the millions of cases like this, that’s when I’ll know that true progress is being made.


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