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