For a long time, I thought I was doing good as a debt counsellor. But I have to face facts: I was coaching people on how to wallow in the warm swamp of indebtednesss
February 28, 2009

Nobody wants to die with money in the bank. The idea of unused credit facilities lying around makes us uneasy, desperate for the whiff of a freshly swiped card. Or is that just me? For ten years I worked as a debt counsellor in Birmingham and Manchester. Many of my clients were cheery souls who lived life to the full, charging the bill to their credit companies and believing something would turn up. Wallowing in this warm swamp of indebtedness seemed a life of endless childhood bliss and, although it wasn't strictly in my job description, I soon found myself teaching people precisely how to sink into that swamp, how to stay there and how to enjoy it.

To maximise the thrill of life in the default zone, I made sure my clients knew their principal task was to spend their way outwards and upwards. Some were slow learners. A concert pianist who came to see me had only one problem debt—a £500 HP agreement on his performance tuxedo—a bit pathetic from a debt counsellor's point of view. He had very little spare cash and the only way he could listen to music was through his answering machine. Because certain notes triggered the tape to rewind, he could only play symphonies in certain keys. With the money he saved by not buying a proper stereo he paid off a tiny debt to a poodle parlour. He was an amateur debtor and required much tuition. A proper debtor would have hired a string quartet to play him to sleep.

Middle-class people generally needed much more intensive coaching in the art than others. They could get there easily enough, but helping them stay there was more difficult. The key was to persuade their creditors there was no disposable income. To convince your bank that a nub of chewing gum wrapped in a bus ticket is a reasonable monthly instalment, you must make subtle and strategic use of your financial statement: a debtor's sword and shield. The trick is to avoid obvious large items of expenditure; if my client's peacocks were undergoing an expensive course of psychotherapy, I would suggest we hid this cost in "general housekeeping."

In many cases, the only way to ensure a customer stayed in the sticky mess of insolvency was to help them to create their own private economy, made up entirely of other people with debts. This often happens when a chain of businesses continue to trade with each other while insolvent, supplying each other with goods and services, and using credit from unsuspecting finance companies to keep the whole merry-go-round spinning.

Spinning around like this can make even the most practised debtors feel sick, though, and the main reason clients gave up and went straight was the endless harassment: letters written in a huge gothic font threatening charging orders on their toasters, and losing their best foot spas to fat men in camel coats. My more professional clients countered this by doing it back. One phoned his bank manager at home to discuss a payment plan, another turned up at the collection team's summer barbeque to offer a small payment off his account.

The lack of access to cash was another barrier to enjoying life in debt paradise, but my happier clients devised devious ways around his. One man bought a 20p length of bamboo from B&Q every day to get cashback at the till. He couldn't offer anyone a lift in his car because he never threw any of the canes away.

Rather than pointing the way out of the indebtedness labyrinth, I became better and better at helping people to worm their way further into the centre of it. One customer was particularly talented. A week after I'd offered all his creditors a token £1 a month, he turned up with a credit agreement for a chainsaw—apparently it was cheaper than paying the council to cut down his trees. Could I offer the shop he had bought it from £1 a month like all the others? I did as he asked, assuming there were few bailiffs who would be willing to recover the tool.

But even a bailiff's visit can be made into an entertaining part of the day. One of my clients removed all her clothes every time the bailiffs arrived. After a few such incidents they never returned.

To some, being in debt seemed to offer a perverse empowerment: their very own little creditors to boss about and decide who gets what and when. "NatWest? You're going to have to wait until next week. The rest of you—if you'd like a tenner to keep you going you'll have to sing me a song." I realised I had helped some clients to develop a strange detachment from their personal finances. Delirious with power, they behaved like the crazed directors of failing businesses, squeezing every drop of cash out of their companies before they went down. Their household accounts had become a remote business operated from a volcano.

At the time, I genuinely thought I was doing some social good. For people with debts, help was at hand. I was a debt adviser and I knew all the tricks. But increasingly I couldn't help wondering: was I pulling people out of the shit, or making the shit more comfortable? Eventually I decided to switch to a sector where I thought couldn't possibly do anyone any harm. I now work in the arts.