Now I’m beat­ing my debt and gam­bling ad­dic­tion, I can en­joy Christ­mas

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Danny Cheetham

Last Christ­mas I wanted to give it my heart. I re­ally was adamant I would make it spe­cial, try to keep smil­ing and show ev­ery­one around me how much they meant to me. I strug­gled a lot, through­out the year, but I had been keep­ing end­less se­crets, bor­row­ing money and try­ing to help my fam­ily when they were stuck for cash, de­spite find­ing it hard to sort out my own bills. I then tried to hide it all by buy­ing even larger presents for peo­ple than was re­al­is­ti­cally af­ford­able.

I was mak­ing min­i­mum pay­ments on all my loans to give me an ex­tra 28 days to deal with my ever-grow­ing debt to­tal.

I have been caught in this debt cy­cle for sev­eral years. I used to start each New Year’s Day by set­ting the goal of be­ing debt-free and sav­ing each month for the next Christ­mas. But I al­ways felt the added pres­sure of know­ing I had to match last year’s gift-giv­ing. It had be­come the “me” they knew. Ev­ery­one thought I was do­ing well. Lit­tle did they know I was hid­ing my ad­dic­tion to gam­bling, and con­tin­u­ous pay­day loans. I was bor­row­ing from one pay­day lender to pay off an­other and hop­ing for the big win that would pay it all off. Ev­ery month my wages be­longed to the pay­day lenders. I’d give them as much as I could – and then start bor­row­ing again.

The pres­sures lead­ing up to pay­day would cause me at least a week of anx­i­ety. I’d cre­ate end­less spread­sheet bud­gets, with per­cent­ages ev­ery­where: “If I pay them 50%, pay this com­pany 25%, if I walk to work I can save this amount …” Pay­day be­came the day of fac­ing up to ev­ery­thing I owed and think­ing about an­other month to go with no money left.

I thought about sui­cide. The idea of just dis­ap­pear­ing used to con­stantly play on my mind – I wanted to es­cape the pres­sure of it all. And I’m not alone in this predica­ment: re­search this week shows that more than 100,000 peo­ple a year in Eng­land who are mired in debt and fac­ing ag­gres­sive tac­tics from debt col­lec­tors at­tempt to end their lives.

I would see ar­ti­cles say­ing that if you’ve had a pay­day loan, you don’t have a chance of get­ting a mort­gage for years af­ter­wards. Even try­ing to rent my own place or ap­ply­ing for some jobs would mean com­ing up against nega­tive credit checks.

I have spent the past 12 months get­ting my fi­nances in bet­ter shape. I started by fac­ing down each lender in­di­vid­u­ally – writ­ing to tell them that I couldn’t af­ford the repayment rates they had set, and how much my life had been af­fected by the stress they were caus­ing me.

I slowly but surely got re­sponses to my let­ters, with many lender al­low­ing the in­ter­est to be frozen. Some even agreed that they had made mis­takes by reg­u­larly giv­ing me money and of­fered to pay back the in­ter­est. Now cam­paigns like Debt Hacker of­fer free tools that al­low you to com­plain about un­af­ford­able loans.

I still feel a great bur­den, even though I’m close to be­ing debt-free. I need to come to terms with the fact that this is the start of an up­hill bat­tle of sav­ing for de­posits, con­tin­gency funds and even hol­i­days. Can I fully trust and be­lieve in my own money man­age­ment? I’ve made so many mis­takes be­fore.

This Christ­mas, I have re­ally started to feel a dif­fer­ence. I am start­ing to see an end in sight – I have a gen­uine smile on my face for the first time in ages.

I have been pay­ing all my debts off as fast as I can. I’ve spent time sit­ting down with fam­ily and be­ing hon­est about how bad things were.

I’m also be­ing re­al­is­tic about presents: the money has to be in my ac­count be­fore I get them, rather than bor­row­ing to go above and be­yond ev­ery­one’s ex­pec­ta­tions.

I’m fi­nally ex­cited about Christ­mas. I’m go­ing to re­ally try to make it about time with peo­ple who mean a lot to me and have stuck by me. I owe them so much, but most im­por­tantly, I know that be­ing happy will ul­ti­mately mean a lot more to them than giv­ing gifts I can’t af­ford.

Next year’s Christ­mas is al­ready be­ing planned too. I will set a monthly tar­get of how much to set aside, so I can be stress free. I’m be­ing re­al­is­tic. And now ev­ery­one who mat­ters in my life knows my sit­u­a­tion, I can rest easy that the pres­sure to over-de­liver is off.

Get­ting my debt un­der con­trol has been my gift to my­self for this year. Next year will be bet­ter still. I might even treat my­self to a Christ­mas jumper.

• In the UK, Sa­mar­i­tans can be con­tacted on 116 123 or email [email protected]­mar­i­tans.org. In the US, the Na­tional Sui­cide Preven­tion Life­line is 1-800-273-8255. In Aus­tralia, the cri­sis sup­port ser­vice Life­line is 13 11 14. Other in­ter­na­tional sui­cide helplines can be found at www.be­frien­ders.org

• Danny Cheetham is a for­mer gam­bling ad­dict who now lob­bies gam­bling com­pa­nies, lenders and banks to adopt more re­spon­si­ble safe­guards for those with ad­dic­tive be­hav­iours

‘Ev­ery­one thought I was do­ing well. Lit­tle did they know I was hid­ing my con­tin­u­ous pay­day loans.’ Pho­to­graph: Andy Hall/Ob­server

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