Over the past few months, we’ve been working on two new pieces of research for the money advice sector. The first, Capturing Experience of Debt Advice has now been published and is available to read here.

The debt sector has a track record of engaging with various stakeholders including advice agencies, creditors, insolvency practitioners, and credit unions. However, the voice that is regularly missing from these consultations belongs to the group with most at stake – people in debt. The Scottish Government’s recently launched Debt Advice Routemap sets out a commitment to developing a user-centred approach to debt advice, and this research is the first step in building a strong evidence base through engagement with people who have had experience of problem debt to realise that aim.

This research involved two phases. The first was an online poll with a demographically representative sample of over 1,000 adults in Scotland. This allowed us to gauge how well people are managing financially as well as determining the scenarios that would prompt them to seek debt help. From the survey we were able to identify people who had experienced problem debt and begin the second phase of the research, 30 interviews with both those who had sought advice and those who hadn’t.

Our key findings are set out below:

  • Income is the key indicator in determining whether someone will experience problem debt and access advice. 22% of the demographically representative sample we surveyed found their level of personal debt to be unmanageable, and people on lower incomes were almost three times less likely to agree with the statement that they manage well financially compared to people on higher incomes.
  • Stigma is a key barrier towards seeking help with debt, and advisers play a central role in alleviating this sense of shame and embarrassment. We found that almost a quarter of people surveyed were put off seeking debt help because it would mean talking to someone about their finances.
  • People will endure considerable hardship and make significant cutbacks to essential living costs before seeking advice. Worryingly, over half of respondents would go without essential spending before even considering seeking advice.
  • There is widespread uncertainty of what to expect from the debt advice process and a lack of awareness about what an adviser can do to help.
  • Face-to-face remains the channel preference for the vast majority (65% prefer to access this type of advice when it reaches the detailed discussion stage), but scope exists to harness digital at the right moments
  • People who receive debt advice are positive about the experience, but we still don’t know enough about what happens after advice.


In the research, we make a series of recommendations to address these findings. We found that income is the key factor in determining if someone will experience problem debt, so there is a real need to ensure that levy funding of advice services is directed towards organisations that are primarily helping the increasing profile of low-income clients who may find it difficult to access advice anywhere else.

This research also made clear that we don’t know enough about what happens to people after they’ve had advice, and whether their plan is affordable. We found evidence of clients continuing to endure hardship in order to service repayments, so we recommend that the potential to incorporate check-in capability to funding models should be explored. One theme that was apparent throughout all aspects of this research was that stigma continues to be a barrier to seeking advice this also impacts on how debt is talked about in a general sense. Therefore, a multi-organisation campaign should be developed to raise awareness and reduce stigma of debt, including a tone of voice standard that aims to change the way we talk about debt and money issues. More information on our recommendations is in the report.

It’s important to note that this work is only a starting point and the Scottish Government has committed to a comprehensive programme of further research to continue to build an in-depth understanding of what people want from advice. Our second piece of research, on adviser perspectives towards a new workforce strategy is due to be published in the next few weeks.