4 things not to say to loved ones who are in debt

By Marianne Curphey

If a friend or family member confesses their debt problems to you, chances are, it has taken them a lot of courage to do so. So it's helpful to know what to say and, most importantly, what not to say in this type of situation.

We've compiled some statements that are unhelpful -- or even harmful -- as well as some more constructive things to say instead.

1. Don't say: "I'm sure it will be OK."
Brushing the issue under the carpet won't make it go away and won't help your friend or family member, says Paul Crayston, spokesman for National Debtline, a free debt counselling service. It's probably taken them a long time and a lot of bravery to even raise the subject, so don't just blow it off casually.

"It is often hard for people to talk openly about money problems, and the earlier they can seek help, the better," he says.

Instead say: "You're not alone." Acknowledging that many people are struggling with money issues in the current economic climate will show your friend or family member that you are willing to listen.

2. Don't say: "You must have overspent."
Assuming that overspending is the only cause of your loved one's debt is unfair. debt-help

"The causes of debt are very complex, and there are mental and psychological elements to it," says Deborah Taylor, who runs her own publishing business.

Taylor would know. She ended up £100,000 in debt that consisted of loans, mortgages and credit card debts, and, as a result, lost her home in 2006. She has since rebuilt her life and launched a new business.

"The really tough thing about debt is that you are trying so hard to pretend that everything is alright because you don't want to admit to yourself that there is a problem and you don't want to worry your friends and family," she says.

Instead say: "Let's sit down and I'll help you sort it out."

While struggling with her debt, Taylor says she wishes more people would have said, "Let me come round to your house and look at everything with you, and we can sort it out and find a solution."

"That would have been so helpful," she says.

Yvonne Goodwin, independent financial adviser at Yvonne Goodwin Wealth Management, recommends helping your loved one make a list of how much they owe and the interest rates associated with that debt.

"You can help them gather up all their statements and put them in order," she says.

Then, make another list of income and essential expenditures (for example, mortgage payments, council tax, utility bills, food and transport purely for work).

"Anything left over should repay the debt with highest interest rate first," Goodwin says.

3. Don't say: "That's terrible, you'll be in debt for life!"
Hopelessness and debt often go hand-in-hand -- so don't make it worse.

"There is always a way out of debt, no matter how bad things may appear," Crayston says.

As a good friend or family member, you don't have to pretend you understand how your loved one feels -- that might come across as patronising. But you can avoid being pessimistic.

"Being a supportive friend is important," Taylor says. "I remember someone saying to me: 'Never mind, having a house isn't the be-all and end-all.' It sounded as though they believed I would never manage to own my home ever again. It was the worst thing they could have said."

Instead say: "There is a way out of this."
Don't make a drama out of it, says Goodwin.

"Be very practical and matter of fact," Goodwin says, and ask if your loved one would be comfortable with you helping them prioritise their debts.

If you feel you can't help out practically in this way, or your loved one needs more help than you can provide, point them towards one of the free debt charities or debt counselling services who can help -- such as StepChange and National Debtline.

"It's not uncommon for people to call us and explain that they want to help a friend who is in debt," Crayston says. "They are calling on their behalf. The best way to be a good mate is to try to direct people to seek help from free debt counselling services."

4. Don't say: "Never mind, let's go for a meal and discuss it then."
One of the most difficult parts of dealing with debt is reigning in expenses when friends and family don't have to.

"Sticking to a budget might mean some difficult conversations with friends and family if your budget does not stretch to the expense of presents, eating out or holidays," says Philip Pearson, an independent adviser with P&P Invest in Southampton.

Instead say: "What can I do to help you get back on track?

As a good friend, you can applaud your loved one's honesty and help them reduce the amount they are spending. Instead of suggesting meals out, invite your friend to your home. Or propose free activities.

Having the support of friends and family who are not judgmental and who recognise that they are trying to manage your money differently can be invaluable to those struggling with debt Pearson says:

"Saying 'no' to spending money is a vital step in taking control of your finances," he says.

See related: 6 questions to ask when a relative asks for a loan, How to make your children financially independent

Published: 16 May 2013