Ringing a bank when facing financial problems as prices soar will make things better, not worse, according to the boss of Santander. Mike Regnier, UK chief executive of the bank, said early notice of difficulties can save further pain and may not affect a customer’s credit rating.
The BBC visited Santander’s support centre as staff took calls from people struggling to afford nappies and milk.
Staff says some cases can leave them in tears. “Sometimes it does bring a tear or two to your eye. People do go through difficult times,” said Maxx Townend, one of the helpline operators working in Bradford. “But you’ve got to be that strong point for them. If there are two people breaking down on the phone it’s going to be a bit of a jumble. But if you’re being that strong person, they are going to feel strong as well.”
The rising cost of living has meant calls to the helpline are up 14% since last year, while the number of people accessing the support pages of its website is up nearly 50%.
During the BBC’s visit, some customers were looking for basic advice on how to reduce their spending, but many were calling in to get funds released to pay for everyday essentials.
“We know the challenges, that this is real life that people are dealing with day in, day out,” Mr Regnier said.
The team is proactively contacting customers who they assess as being at risk of not being able to cover their monthly outgoings.
Tackling It Together: How to Deal with Looming Debt
>>> Talk to someone. You are not alone and there is help available. A trained debt adviser can talk you through the options. Here are some organisations to get in touch with.
>>> Take control. Citizens Advice suggest you work out how much you owe, who to, which debts are the most urgent and how much you need to pay each month.
>>> Ask for a payment plan. Energy suppliers, for example, must give you a chance to clear your debt before taking any action to recover the money
>>> Check you’re getting the right money. Use the independent MoneyHelper website or benefits calculators run by Policy in Practice and charities Entitledto and Turn2us
>>> Ask for breathing space. If you’re receiving debt advice in England and Wales you can apply for a break to shield you from further interest and charges for up to 60 days.
Research and transaction data from elsewhere in the sector have suggested that many people have avoided debt by using savings and cutting back on non-essential spending.
Two broad camps have emerged among consumers as prices and bills have soared over the winter, although everyone’s financial situation is different.
Banks say that millions of people had built up a savings buffer during Covid lockdowns and have kept their jobs, which had helped to accommodate the rising cost of living. They have also cut back on various elements of spending to help their situation.
The second group does not have that luxury and, although they may be working, could have already been in financial difficulty.
Mr Regnier, from Santander, said that he had not seen a big increase in the number of customers that are falling behind on the debts nor a big increase in the amount that people are borrowing. For instance with mortgage payments, there are still fewer customers in arrears than there were before the pandemic.