What we’ve learned so far about our ‘How to deal with debt’ guide

Rosie Thompson is Head of Client Experience at the Money Advice Trust and led the revamp of the Trust’s guide to ‘How to deal with debt’ guide for England and Wales. Rosie shares what we have learned about the value of the guide to people in debt and the advice organisations that support them.

 Last year our advisers at National Debtline helped over 147,000 people in financial difficulty by phone and webchat. Providing technically accurate advice is essential to this work. But this is only part of the process. Maximising the chances of people in debt taking the right action to deal with their situation is crucial.

To do this, understanding the emotions people are going through at the point they seek advice is important as we know emotions often drive behaviours.

Our revamped ‘How to deal with debt’ guide, developed with the Money and Pensions Service and Ogilvy Consulting Behavioural Science Practice, launched in April last year, draws upon this knowledge. The guide’s design, colours, language and tone of voice are there to encourage people to take action.

As we approach the one year anniversary of its launch, I want to share how different agencies are using the guide in a variety of ways, and to encourage agencies to continue to order this free resource.

One size does not fit all…

Since its launch we have sent 31,425 guides to front line advice agencies across England and Wales, all of whom are working with people in debt.

What is interesting is that agencies are using the guide in different ways and in a range of locations that work for their clients. Eight in ten agencies we surveyed said they use the guide during an advice session or when advising a client. While more than six in ten (64%) give the guide to clients after an advice session so that people can start to deal with their debt themselves.

Whilst Citizens Advice Bureaux were common locations, the guide is also used at community outreach locations including some food banks, mental health units, churches and job centres.

A pick and mix approach

And the way in which the guide is used varies greatly. For some people, it’s an end-to-end approach, taking you through all the steps you need to take based on your circumstances.

For others, the guide acts as a useful information gathering exercise. Clients are often anxious when they take that first step to seek advice. The guide can help ease some of their nerves as readers see the key messages upfront, with the detail in different sections and can make notes on it as they go along. This means that if a bit of information is missed during a conversation with an adviser it is not a problem as the details in the guide acts as a back-up.

We know for some users, the size of the guide can be off-putting. From feedback and user testing it is clear that once people start engaging with the content they soon realise that they don’t necessarily need to read all of it. We purposely didn’t try to ‘squeeze’ the information into a certain number of pages and compromise design or accessibility by reducing the font size or white space, which also helps make the guide easier to read.

We have also heard how different sections are used with clients at different points in their debt journey. The ‘Know what you’ve really got’ section helped some clients understand their income better as it took them through the process of completing a budget.

The stand-alone template letters at the back of the pack made it easier for some clients to make contact with their creditors.

People take action

Crucially, our initial findings show that after engaging with the guide people do take action.

We know that:

  • Nearly all users (96%) have a better understanding of how to do a budget
  • Nearly all (98%) are clear on the steps they need to take to deal with their debts.


  • six in ten (60%) completed a budget, and
  • six in ten (63%) chose a debt solution.

At first glance these final two numbers may seem like modest figures. However, when you consider that these are actions taken by the individual in debt rather than an adviser or someone else acting on their behalf, they become more powerful.

At a time when demand for our services and that of other free debt advice providers is so high, understanding how we can support people to take action themselves is more important than ever.

A free resource

So far the overwhelming feedback we have received about the guide is positive. From the way it is written to its lay out, it is assisting advisers in their advice processes and the people in debt that they help.

If you have not used the guide I would encourage you to take a look. Even if you have used the guide already, further orders can be placed for free on our website. We will carry out further evaluation of the guide this coming year, to further glean what people in debt think about the guide and the extent to which the guide helps them deal with their debts. This year we are also working with the Scottish Government to develop the ‘How to deal with debt’ guide for Scotland.

You can order the guide for free here.

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