The debt trap is a lonely, shameful place. (Spencer Platt/Getty)

January 8, 2024   6 mins

Debt is like minor toothache; you can get worryingly used to having it but will rarely forget it’s there. And for increasing numbers of us in the UK, it’s how we fund our day-to-day lives. Yet, no one talks about it, which is partly why being trapped by debt is such a lonely, miserable, and shameful experience.

As a writer of two best-selling books, people assume I’m well-off. Hailing from background which could comfortably be described as “deprived”, I came to enjoy the feeling of being regarded as successful and prosperous. But behind the scenes, I’ve struggled to keep my head above water. The truth is, over the last few years, like millions of others on this God forsaken little island, I’ve been caught in a web of financial adversity.

I am well aware that my relative privilege as an author and broadcaster may render my difficulties laughable in some people’s eyes. How could someone off the telly have the gall to complain about financial adversity, during a cost-of-living clusterfuck like the one we are living through in the UK. Of course, the key word here is “relative”. Ten years ago, my main problem was being unable to make a carry-out last until the off-licence opened at 10am. Today, keeping up with the taxman is the central dilemma of my existence.

I was caught out by a particular form of tax. The one self-employed people pay. Many years ago, Gordon Brown, in his wisdom, changed the rules around when and how this tax should be paid. When you work for yourself, your tax is not deducted at source, so you are responsible for setting aside the funds throughout the course of the year, and paying what you owe in January. Brown decided self-employed people should not only pay what they owe, but also an additional half of what they were projected to earn the following year — this is Payment on Account. It means that if your tax bill is £15,000, then you have to pay £22,500 by January’s end and then another £7,500 the following July. And if your tax bill is £30,000, you’re up for 45k, then 15k six months later.

But what if, like me, you weren’t aware of this? What if nobody told you that this is how it works? Well, then, you’re fucked. Here’s how it goes: the tax bill comes in, plus the additional “payment on account”, and you realise you haven’t got enough to cover it. And suddenly, the first genuinely great year of your entire life morphs into a terrifying nightmare.

Now, add a random calamity such as Covid, lockdown and an economy in absolute freefall. You emerge from the first high-earning year of your life, only to discover you have the tax liability of a well-paid person, with no capacity to actually earn the money required to settle your bill. And what’s worse, every pound you do claw in is itself taxable. So basically, the money you are making to try to pay the tax becomes your next tax bill. And the more you try and earn to offset this, the harder it all gets. Yes, it’s a first-world problem, but it’s a problem nonetheless.

According to Money and Mental Health, over 1.5 million people experienced both difficult debt and mental health issues in 2023. Money and Pensions Service found that as many as 24 million people don’t feel confident managing their money. And according to the Financial Capability Survey, only a third of those people in debt receive help. One of the hardest things is not being able to talk about it. I couldn’t talk to my working-class friends or family because I feared they would resent me, given the sums I was dealing with. Plus, it seemed arrogant to complain given many of them are still living in genuine poverty. And I didn’t know anyone with money well enough to get into any real depth with them about something so personal either.

But I did consistently face the problem. This is the first difficult aspect of confronting a debt. You have to behave like a person who is in debt. You have to open the letters — they won’t go away. You have to make the calls — they’ll always track you down if you don’t. There is something about accepting the reality of the debt and not resisting nor hiding from it which makes the situation slightly more tolerable.

The outstanding amount was, for me, a large sum, made all the greater by the punishing fines and penalties incurred. And dealing with HMRC is torture. It’s shaming, confusing and utterly humiliating. It reminded me of dealing with the DWP when I was living in supported accommodation on benefits in my early twenties.

I did eventually come to realise, though, that my pain was not caused solely by the debt but by resentment. I was suffering from the sense of injustice that after a life of having so little, I was now being punished for doing better. My stubborn refusal to fully accept that the debt was my responsibility, was making everything worse.

There was some stubborn pride rolling around in there, too. I enjoyed that people believed I was doing well. It was a tremendous buzz to be regarded as prosperous, given how much shame I had felt as a kid wearing cheap, unfashionable brands, and for how long I’d languished in my alcoholic years, letting everybody down. The pain I was experiencing was not simply the pain of being in debt, but the pain of being humbled. Not humbled the way people claim to be when they win a BAFTA. I mean truly, excruciatingly humbled. I’d fucked up big time, got ahead of myself, and paid little attention to the detail. All my life I had advocated that those with more should pay more. Well, now was time to put my money where my big socialist mouth was.

But while the situation was far from ideal, it was hardly an existential crisis. My family was well looked after. I could work every day if I chose to. HMRC weren’t coming through my door waving clawhammers. Of all the debts you could get yourself into, a debt with a dysfunctional government department is probably one of the cheapest and least stressful, truth be told.

I realised that, if I wanted to pay it off, I had to reframe my experience. In my early days, as a struggling writer and artist, I was extremely industrious. As a teenager, I’d record my own music, buy the blank cassette tapes, hand-draw all the covers and give them out at school. I pressed up my own CDs, handed them in to local record stores and collected the sales the next month. Indeed, my debut book was itself a by-product of my can-do attitude; being crowdfunded, the buzz I managed to generate before it was even finished led to first week sales in Scotland so strong that it wasn’t long until London publishers began sniffing around to see what all the fuss was about.

“So what happened to that guy?” I began asking myself. The success had blunted my wits. Dulled my appetite. Why was I sitting around waiting for something to happen when the situation clearly demanded two qualities I have in spades: creativity and courage? There are many difficult problems most of us will face at some stage of our lives — spiralling debt is just one of them. Once it dawned on me that I’d choose my large debt burden over a chronic health problem, a divorce, or a sudden bereavement, it freed up a little energy to do more than simply tread financial water — I began setting about the debt the way a lumberjack does the trunk of a very large tree.

Nothing changes if nothing changes. I decided to take some risks. I announced a UK tour and invited my followers to approach me directly if they wanted to book my show. The response was overwhelming. Within a few days I had one or two shows a week scheduled from March to August. No venue too small. No location too remote. No community priced-out. If they wanted me, I would go. I then partnered with local booksellers in every town and city and shifted a fair amount of stock while on the road. This put a spring in my step. I learned that by sitting down and coming up with a plan, and staying the course as best I could, the mountain of debt needn’t be insufferable.

For years, every morning I woke up and this was on my mind. Every time I thought I was making progress, they would hammer me again with another couple thousand in charges, inflating the figure, leading to more charges and more interest. I took it all on the chin. It was demoralising, yes. But I stuck to the plan and can honestly say I did the best I could. And, a few weeks ago, with tears in my eyes, I called HMRC up to settle the outstanding amount, finally.

This morning, I’ve just spent a few hours signing and inscribing copies of my second book, writing out the corresponding envelopes, and prepping them for delivery. This is how I used to do it in the old days, before anyone knew or cared about my work. I’m not doing this out of the kindness of my heart but out of necessity. And you know what, I couldn’t be happier.

I’m not skint in the way someone who works in a low-paid job is skint. I’m not skint because I haven’t been working. I’m skint because I’ve used pretty much every penny I could get my hands on to get this monkey off my back. My sole motivation, after years of cowering beneath its awesome weight, was to finally settle this fucking debt. A debt which I accrued through a lack of financial education, and I have a feeling this story is more common than people realise.

I say this for the benefit of anyone climbing a steep financial mountain. While every circumstance is different, there are principles I think apply to most people and most problems. The first, acknowledge there is a problem and that it’s yours to solve. Second, identify and eliminate any unhelpful stories you are telling yourself about the problem. Focus on what you can do about it. And finally, come up with a plan to tackle it and stick to the plan as best you can. Don’t hide from it. Even though it often feels impossible, I promise one day, if you hang in there, you’ll wake up and that problem won’t be looming over your head anymore.

Citizens Advice can help advise if you are struggling with debt

Darren McGarvey is a Scottish hip hop artist and social commentator. In 2018, his book Poverty Safari won the Orwell Prize and his new book The Social Distance Between Us (Ebury Press) is out on 16th June.