Over the past year, rising prices have put increasing pressure on many people living in Great Britain.

As financial pressures rise, some people struggle to keep up with payments, or fall into debt. We have explored data from our Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) and spoken to experts at Citizens Advice and the Money Advice Trust to understand the wider impacts of debt on individuals’ well-being over the recent winter months.

Half of adults (49%) who reported that they were behind on energy bills between 14 September and 8 January 2023 also reported high levels of anxiety, compared with a third of those who were not behind (33%). They were also more likely than those not behind on bills to report low life satisfaction, happiness, and feelings that things done in life are worthwhile.

Similar trends were found among adults who reported borrowing more money or using more credit than usual, and those who found it difficult to pay their energy bills, rent, or mortgage.

A fifth of adults report borrowing more money compared with a year ago, and fewer expect to save in 2023

More than a fifth of adults in Great Britain (22%, equal to around 11.5 million people) reported borrowing more money or using more credit because of the increased cost of living between 25 January and 5 February 2023. This is an increase from 17% between 19 and 30 January 2022.

People’s expectations about their ability to save money has reduced over the year. Between 25 January and 5 February 2023, more than 4 in 10 adults (42%, equal to around 22 million people) said they did not expect to save any money in the next 12 months. This is an increase from a third (36%) of those surveyed between 19 and 30 January 2022.

4 in 10 adults did not expect to save any money in the coming year in early 2023

Percentage of adults reporting that they were borrowing more money or using more credit compared with the year before, did not expect to save any money in the coming year, and were unable to afford an unexpected expense, Great Britain, 19 to 30 January 2022 and 25 January to 5 February 2023

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Download the data for adults reporting financial pressures in early 2022 and early 2023, (XLSX, 11KB)

Those in vulnerable groups were more likely to report borrowing more. Increased borrowing and use of credit were more common among renters, parents of dependent children, and those living in the most deprived areas of Great Britain.

Consumer spending trends over winter did not change significantly, compared with previous years. However, while the amount that people spent in winter 2022 and 2023 was higher than previous years, consumers were able to purchase fewer goods and services. As prices have risen, people’s purchasing power has reduced.

These financial pressures appear to be negatively affecting the well-being of people reporting them. People who are in arrears, or are finding it difficult to make their bill payments, report lower happiness and life satisfaction and higher anxiety than people in a better financial situation. Similar trends are apparent among those who are borrowing more money or using more credit than usual.

I make plenty of sacrifices for myself so [my children] do not do without. But there is only so much you can sacrifice and scale back on.

National Debtline caller

People who are behind on energy bill payments reported lower happiness and higher anxiety

Household energy bills increased significantly over the last year because of increases in wholesale gas prices during 2022.

Despite these large rises in bills, the percentage of people falling into arrears appears relatively stable. Around 6% of adults said they were behind on their gas and electricity bills between 25 January and 5 February 2023. This is the same percentage as when the question was first asked in March 2022.

However, almost half of all adults (47%) who have gas or electricity supplied to their home said they found it very, or somewhat, difficult to afford their bills between 25 January and 5 February 2023.

We have used pooled data from September 2022 to January 2023 to examine a larger sample size than is possible in a single survey wave.

People who reported being behind on bills between 14 September 2022 and 8 January 2023 were more likely to report lower happiness, life satisfaction, and feelings that things done in life were worthwhile. They also reported higher anxiety than those who were not behind on bills.

Around two-thirds of adults (67%) who were not behind on their energy bills reported a life satisfaction score of "very high" (18%) or "high" (49%) between 14 September 2022 and 8 January 2023.

This fell to 38% among adults who reported being behind on their energy bills, with 9% reporting “very high” life satisfaction, and 29% reporting “high” life satisfaction.

Life’s a nightmare at the moment, as everything is going up in price. I don't have hot meals at home as I can't afford the energy costs or the food.

Valerie, aged 62 years, Citizens Advice user

Adults in energy bill arrears were also three times more likely than those not in arrears to report low life satisfaction. Almost 3 in 10 (28%) people behind on bills reported low satisfaction, compared with 9% of those not in arrears.

Almost half of adults who were behind on bills (49%) reported a high anxiety score, compared with a third (33%) of those not in arrears.

People behind on energy bills have a higher likelihood of experiencing moderate-to-severe depressive symptoms. This is according to previous Office for National Statistics (ONS) analysis of data from autumn 2022.

Adults in arrears on energy bills had lower well-being

Well-being measures by whether respondent was behind on their energy bill payments, Great Britain, 14 September 2022 to 8 January 2023

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Notes:
  1. Question: Are you behind on payments for your gas or electricity bills? Base: all adults who had gas or electricity supplied to their homes.
  2. The four well-being questions were asked as follows: Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?, Overall, to what extent do you feel that the things you do in your life are worthwhile?, Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?, Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?. Each of these questions were answered on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is “not at all” and 10 is “completely”.
  3. Well-being scores have been grouped into thresholds. For more information on this, see the accompanying dataset.

Download the data for well-being of those behind and not behind on energy bills (XLSX, 12KB)

The percentage of adults who reported that they were reducing their energy use because of the cost of living between 14 September and 8 January 2023 increased with age. Around 4 in 10 (40%) of those aged 16 to 24 years, who are less likely to have bill paying responsibilities, reported reducing their energy use. In comparison, over 70% of those aged 55 to 74 years reported reducing their energy use.

Parents were more likely to report reducing their home fuel use than those without dependent children, or those not living with with dependent children. Similarly, homeowners reported reducing their home fuel use more compared with renters. This may be because renters tend to be younger and could have energy bills included in their rent.

Adults who were borrowing more money or using more credit were twice as likely to report low happiness

Between 25 January and 5 February 2023, a fifth of adults (22%) said that they had to borrow more money or use more credit in the last month, compared with a year ago. This is significantly higher than between 19 and 30 January 2022, when 17% of adults reported this.

While this does not necessarily reflect people experiencing problem debt, those needing to borrow money or rely more heavily on credit might be under increased financial pressure.

Most of the people we help have limited or no savings and little to no stretch in their budgets to deal with an unexpected bill or an increase in an essential cost.

Jane Tully, Director of external affairs, Money Advice Trust

More than a fifth (22%) of adults who reported borrowing more money or using more credit between September 2022 and January 2023 reported a low happiness score. This is twice the percentage of adults who had not relied more on borrowing or credit (11%).

Those who were borrowing more were more likely than those who were not borrowing more to report a high anxiety score.

More than 4 in 10 adults who were borrowing more money or using more credit had high anxiety

Well-being measures by whether respondent was borrowing more money or using more credit in the last month compared with a year ago, Great Britain, 14 September 2022 to 8 January 2023

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Notes:
  1. Question: Have you had to borrow more money or use more credit than usual in the last month, compared to a year ago? Borrowing or using credit may include credit cards, overdrafts, or taking out loans, borrowing from friends, family, neighbours or other personal connections.
  2. The four well-being questions were asked as follows: Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?, Overall, to what extent do you feel that the things you do in your life are worthwhile?, Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?, Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?. Each of these questions were answered on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is “not at all” and 10 is “completely”.
  3. Well-being scores have been grouped into thresholds. For more information on this, see the accompanying dataset.

Download the data for well-being measures by borrowing (XLSX, 12KB)

Well-being was worse for those struggling to afford bills

Between 25 January and 5 February 2023, almost half of adults (47%) said they found it “very difficult” (12%), or “somewhat difficult” (34%) to afford their energy bills. Furthermore, 3 in 10 people (30%) said they found it “very difficult” (7%), or “somewhat difficult” (23%) to afford their rent or mortgage payments.

This may contribute to an increase in people reporting high anxiety. Half of adults who found paying energy bills "very difficult" (51%) reported high anxiety between 14 September 2022 and 8 January 2023. In comparison, 22% of adults who found affording them “very easy” reported high anxiety.

Adults who found rent or mortgage payments “very difficult” to pay also had higher anxiety (51%) compared with people who found housing payments “very easy” to afford (29%).

I’m receiving the same rate of money each month, but everything else continues to rise steeply, so often it’s a balancing act.

National Debtline caller

Adults struggling with bills were more likely to report low well-being in other forms. Around one in six (17%) of those who reported finding it very, or somewhat, difficult to pay their energy bills also reported low life satisfaction, and one in five (20%) reported low happiness. In contrast, just 5% of those who found affording energy bills very, or somewhat, easy reported low life satisfaction, and 8% reported low happiness.

Around 20% of people who found rent or mortgage bills very, or somewhat, difficult to pay reported low life satisfaction, compared with 7%, who found making payments very, or somewhat, easy. A similar percentage (21%) of people who found rent or mortgage payments very, or somewhat, difficult to pay reported low happiness, compared with 11% who found them very, or somewhat, easy to pay.

More than one in five debt issues taken to Citizens Advice were related to fuel bills

The number of people Citizens Advice, a charity that offers advice to people in the UK on a range of issues, were giving advice on fuel debt to has risen since 2021.

In January 2019, before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Citizens Advice dealt with more than 5,500 cases of fuel debt. This dropped to 4,800 in January 2020, but by January 2023, the number of people Citizens Advice helped with fuel debt almost doubled, to close to 9,500.

Of all people who received help from Citizens Advice about debt in January 2019, and a specific source of debt was recorded, 13% sought help with fuel debt. This increased to more than a fifth in January 2022 and 2023 (23% and 21%, respectively).

Fuel debts were the most common type of debt Citizens Advice helped people with, in January 2023

Most common sources of debt advice given by Citizens Advice, ranked, January 2019 and January 2023

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Notes:
  1. We have only ranked issues where a specific source of debt has been listed. Other calls about debt, which could include less defined issues, are included in the totals but not the ranks.
  2. Figures on the number of cases are rounded to the nearest 100.

Download the data for help given by Citizens Advice by debt source (XLSX, 11KB)

I can barely afford the heating and now I'm having to waste money I don’t have to take a taxi to go to the shops to top up my [prepayment] meter. […] I try not to use it too much, as I am scared I'll be left in the dark.

Audrey, aged 81 years, Citizens Advice user

The second most common type of debt Citizens Advice supported people with in January 2023 was council tax arrears (19% of debt cases) and credit card or store and card charge debts (11%).

Debt and well-being data

Debt and well-being in Great Britain
Dataset | Released 22 February 2023
Data exploring the financial situations of adults in Great Britain from the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, broken down by well-being and loneliness.

Measuring the data

Opinions and Lifestyle Data (OPN)

This analysis used pooled data from the OPN, covering 14 September 2022 to 8 January 2023. Further information on the data quality, sampling, and weighting is included in our Impact of increased cost of living on adults across Great Britain: September 2022 to January 2023 article.

Further information on personal well-being, and the thresholds mentioned in this release, can be found in the personal well-being user guidance.

Changes were made to the survey methodology in the latest pooled period, 14 September 2022 to 8 January 2023; therefore, we do not recommend making comparisons with previous pooled periods. Any differences should be treated with caution.

More quality and methodology information on the OPN and its strengths, limitations, appropriate uses, and how the data were created is available in our Opinions and Lifestyle Survey quality and methodology information (QMI). 

Citizens Advice data

Citizens Advice data are recorded by advisors working with clients. It is therefore only representative of people who receive help from the charity and is not representative of the UK population as a whole.

The data we have used are monthly counts of the number of unique clients helped by Citizens Advice with specific sources of debt. Clients may be advised on multiple issues and receive advice for more than one month. Monthly figures cannot be summed, as it could result in the same client being counted more than once.

The data collected only reflect people who receive help from Citizens Advice and do not include people who sought advice but could not get through to an adviser.

The data can be found in the Citizens Advice monthly dataset.

About Citizens Advice and Money Advice Trust

Citizens Advice

Citizens Advice includes the national charity Citizens Advice (the network of independent local Citizens Advice charities across England and Wales), the Citizens Advice consumer service, and the Witness Service. Citizens Advice service staff are supported by more than 18,500 trained volunteers, working at over 2,500 service outlets across England and Wales.

Money Advice Trust

The Money Advice Trust is a national charity helping people with debt and money advice. The Money Advice Trust run National Debtline, offering confidential advice on personal debt over the phone and online. It also runs Business Debtline, providing debt advice for the self-employed and small business owners.

If you are struggling with debt, you can seek advice Citizens Advice at https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/debt-and-money/, or National Debtline at https://nationaldebtline.org/, or on Freephone 0808 808 4000.

View all data used in this article

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