Regional differences in debt, credit use in the UK

By Benjamin Salisbury

Many Brits have credit cards, and plenty carry card debt, but where you live may factor into how much debt you carry, how many cards you have or even how often you use credit.

Credit-checking company Noddle analysed the financial profiles of 43 million people in the UK to find out how people spend and save their money, which the Daily Telegraph used to compile an interactive map that shows the areas in the UK that rely most on credit cards.

Combined with other data available from StepChange, it helps provide a detailed analysis of Brits' credit habits. regional-differences

Londoners use the most credit
In what may be an obvious revelation, the Daily Telegraph's map shows that the wealthiest areas of the UK use credit cards most frequently, particularly in London and the home counties.

The highest rates of credit card ownership are in Kingston upon Thames, Guildford and Redhill, all in or near London. In Kingston upon Thames and Guildford, 75% of households have at least one credit card, compared with a national average of around 50%.

A distinct north and south divide in credit card ownership exists -- there are no northern areas in the top 10. Sunderland had the lowest level of credit card ownership at just 32%, while Newcastle upon Tyne was second-lowest at 41%.

"While many wealthier commuters live in the outskirts of London, our data shows that many of them access much more credit than counterparts in other parts of the country," stated Jacqueline Dewey, managing director, consumer markets at Noddle.

However, further research from StepChange shows that the debt charity sees more London clients than it does clients from any other area. In 2015, the charity advised almost 27,000 London clients, nearly 7,000 more than the next most-advised group, the North West.

Less debt doesn't mean fewer debt problems
"There is a strong correlation between credit cards and problem debt, and evidence that people use credit cards when they are in difficulty with other bills," Francis McGee, director of external affairs at StepChange, said in an emailed response to questions.

The table below shows that, in 2015, Northern Ireland had the most debt, averaging £12,174 owed per household, followed by the South East at £11,672. Even before the credit crunch in 2009, those in East of England and in the South East had higher levels of unsecured debt. In 2015, Londoners had average unsecured debts of £10,577 per household, coming in ninth of the 12 areas analysed by StepChange. It's notable, however, that across the country, the average unsecured debt per household sharply declined between 2005 and 2015, falling by about £18,000 in some areas.

However, StepChange's figures also show that credit-loving Londoners are least able to pay debts, as clients in that area had by far the largest deficit - meaning paying off their debts could not be done without substantially more money in their monthly budgets. The next largest deficit was in the South East.

This can be attributed to a couple of factors. First, the cost of living and housing costs are higher in London and the South East. Secondly, since more credit cards are used in these areas, it may be that people are more likely to rely on them to cover living costs.

In other parts of the country where wages and house prices are lower, the availability of credit is also lower, and though financial pressures may be just as acute, credit card debt is lower. In fact, debtors in the North East have had a surplus of income over expenditure throughout the last decade -- even in 2009 when the credit crunch was at its most brutal, StepChange says.

StepChange also cited the increase in part-time, temporary and zero hours contracts as a reason for more reliance on credit, and said that the rise in consumer credit "is an area of growing concern which risks increasing the vulnerability of households who are already struggling to make ends meet."

"Nationally, we have seen that many people use credit, including credit cards, to pay everyday living expenses," said McGee. "Our research shows that 4 million people in Britain are using credit as a safety net to cover everyday living expenses and emergency costs."

A breakdown of debt owed by consumers seeking debt help

Region Number of clients
receiving StepChange
advice (2015)
Avg. monthly
to pay off  debt,
in £ (2015) 
Avg. unsecured
debt (2005)
unsecured debt (2010)
unsecured debt (2015)

East of England

 9,358  -12  £30,062  £20,574  £11,353

East Midlands

 9,791  -2  £26,839  £19,382  £10,617


 26,911  -61  £29,640  £19,665  £10,577

North East

 8,137  2  £26,232  £18,135  £10,182

Northern Ireland

 2,253  19  £22,247  £18,792  £12,174

North West

 19,732  -1  £26,746  £18,538  £10,808


 7,326  7  £26,115  £17,059  £11,653

South East

 19,006  -13  £30,267  £21,466  £11,672

South West

 12,922  -5  £28,039  £20,247  £10,866


 7,804  0  £26,756  £18,377  £10,887

West Midlands

 15,120  -1  £27,221  £18,139  £10,172


 14,890  -1  £25,739  £18,099  £10,180
UK national average
 13,357  -13  £27,919  £19,236  £10,827

  Source: StepChange

See related: Credit card instalment plans: Affordable alternative to high-interest borrowing, Credit cards no longer just for big-ticket items

Published: 19 May 2016