Desperately in debt

by Mathilde de Gooijer


Money makes the world go round, they say –  but what happens if all of that cash is gone all of a sudden? Debt can affect anyone with a little misfortune. How should we deal with debt in our current judgmental society?

Bills are piling up, rent is overdue and there doesn’t seem to be a way out. In 2017, over 94,000 people applied for debt assistance with an average debt of 42,000 € in the Netherlands, according to Dutch broadcaster NOS. Their financial situation leaves debtors often feeling desperate and lonely. Bert and Henry, both devout members of church, have helped people with monetary problems for years. They work for the Salvation Army, one of many organisations offering debt assistance to help people through personally and financially rough times.

In 2017, the Dutch department of the Salvation Army helped in 6,000 cases – by organizing administration, helping at filling in forms or guiding people to another help organisation. As they point out, key to their approach of ‘supportive contact’ is helping others without judging them. Coffee mornings, thrift stores and choir practices mark occasions where people meet and mingle. “Sometimes we can detect a financial problem at an early stage and step in to help before it escalates,” says Bert.

Facts of Life
According to Bert, debt is often caused by big life changes like a breakup or losing your job. Another common path: a divorce forcing a couple to sell their house. They still have to pay the mortgage and each find new housing for themselves. Others rely on their partner to deal with finances, but when said partner dies, they suddenly have to take over and get swamped. Moreover, letters concerning payment are regularly full of idioms, making them hard to understand. Some people are willing to pay the bills but unaware that they missed a deadline.

“We offer short-term assistance by helping to organize finances and searching for possibilities to make payment arrangements”, Henry explains. Normally, this should be fixed in about three months. If problems are more severe and take longer to solve, professionals step in. “Even then, we are there for moral support and guidance.”

Debtors, Young and Old
In a society that seems to thrive on success, people often feel like they have failed when in debt. Even when getting in touch with Bert and Henry for help, some tend to hide the full amount of their debts. “We’ve worked with people from Moroccan and Turkish culture too. They feel incredible ashamed.”

As Henry points out, debt can start at a very young age. “Students end their education in massive debt. With a good job for the future in mind, they try to buy a house and get a mortgage. But what if that good job doesn’t come? They still have to pay their mortgage and their debts.” There’s always a newer smartphone available or another tempting deal. “Especially young people want to own things and don’t worry whether they can actually afford them,” says Bert. “Credit cards and payment arrangements have made it easier for us to purchase goods; to an extent where we’ve become greedy and lost the sense of value.”

On the other hand, elderly without or with little pension find it difficult to make ends meet. “I’ve worked with a retired lady who had just enough to pay all her monthly bills. Unfortunately, she had rent arrears from previous months and simply no spare money to pay them. We then negotiated with her landlord to come up with a payment plan,” Henry remembers.

Public Double Play
State authorities play a double role when it comes to debt. Often taxes and fines cause debt but the government also provides help. Tax authorities for instance have become more open to compromise: On condition that people are willing to receive assistance, they can get a payment plan.   

Organisations offering debt assistance like the Salvation Army are therefore still much needed.

Henry is glad people come to him in their quest for help. “We have more personal contact and are easier to approach than most official debt institutes. We don’t judge and we’re open.”

As both Henry and Bert always point out to people seeking help: If you get swamped in unpaid bills, a jungle of forms and confusing terminology will hit you. The important thing to remember: There is always a way out.