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The Credit Services Association (CSA)
Blog: Moving beyond money: the Financial Wellness of UK households
Sharon Collard is Professor of Personal Finance and Research Director at the University of Bristol’s Personal Finance Research Centre. She will be part of the vulnerable customers panel at the Credit Services Association’s UK Credit & Collections Conference #ukccc on 15 September 2016.
Jamie Evans is a Research Associate at University of Bristol’s Personal Finance Research Centre who is currently working on a research project looking at the experiences and practices of frontline collections staff when working with vulnerable customers. Jamie is working on this project with Chris Fitch, who will also be on the conference panel (also see Chris’ recent blog on vulnerability and debt collection practices).
It’s safe to say that money is a big part of our day-to-day lives.
Whether we’re earning it, spending it, or simply wishing we had more of it, money is something we spend a lot of time thinking about.
This is even more true for the research team at the Personal Finance Research Centre! We specialise in social research across all areas of personal finance – so, naturally, money issues are often at the forefront of our minds.
In our research, however, it’s important for us to recognise that money is ultimately just a number. A higher income doesn’t necessarily make someone ‘better off’, while a bigger bank balance doesn’t guarantee someone’s long-term financial health. In other words, looking at one number alone rarely tells the whole story.
That’s why we think it’s crucial to consider the range of different factors that come together to affect someone’s financial situation. It’s also why we were delighted when financial services provider Momentum UK asked us to measure the ‘Financial Wellness’ of the UK population.
Financial Wellness is about so much more than just income
Our work with Momentum led to the construction of an Index, which was made up of ten key domains of Financial Wellness. We based three of these domains on data about the national economy – GDP per capita, the unemployment rate and the Gini Coefficient of income inequality. The other seven domains focused on Financial Wellness at the household scale and were calculated using a nationally-representative survey of around 2,000 individuals. The survey covered different domains of Financial Wellness, including (but not limited to) financial confidence, satisfaction with income, problem debt and material deprivation.
We calculated a score from 0 to 10 for each domain, thereby giving an overall score out of 100 when all ten domains are combined. For the first wave of the Index, the score was 67 out of 100. This suggests that the UK population is relatively financially well on average but with significant room for improvement.
Of course, as we said before, looking at one number alone rarely tells the whole story. That’s why we’re planning to run a second wave of the Index later this year, and hopefully in subsequent years too, so we can begin to paint a picture of how the nation’s finances are changing over time.
Digging a little deeper
The beauty of the Index is that when you start to dig a little deeper from the headline figure you get to see how people are coping in the different areas of their financial lives. We can see, for example, that while the average person is currently able to avoid severe financial difficulty and generally meets their bills on time, they are much less likely to be building up savings and assets for the future.
Indeed, we found that nearly a third of the population have savings of less than £100 and a similar proportion admit they would find it hard to cope in the event of an unexpected major expense. The picture is even more worrying among certain demographic segments: young adults, the unemployed, renters and those from ethnic minority backgrounds are just a few of the groups that are significantly less financially well on average.
Understanding individual financial journeys
It is useful for researchers and policy-makers alike to be able to generalise about different parts of the population, but it is also crucial that we don’t forget the human stories which lie at the heart of everything we do.
So, when we constructed the Momentum UK Index of Financial Wellness we were eager to capture some of these stories – to hear how real people were coping financially in their day-to-day lives. To do this, we spoke to a range of people from across the country and produced case studies for each.
The stories, of course, were all unique.
We spoke with one couple whose retirement plans had been shattered when their life-savings were stolen from their loft. We also heard from a young man about the difficulties he faced controlling his spending because of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Another woman we talked to was just about getting-by after her husband was forced off-work due to an accident the previous year.
It would be easy to make assumptions about each of these people’s financial situation if we hadn’t taken the time to understand their individual stories.
It would be easy to treat them as just another number on a spreadsheet.
Computer says no?
The financial services sector has famously been criticised for its “computer says no” approach, but we think this is certainly something that is changing.
In a separate piece of research that we’re currently working on with Chris Fitch (one of the authors of the well-known ’12 steps for treating potentially vulnerable customers fairly’ guidance), we’re exploring the experiences and practices of frontline collections staff when it comes to dealing with vulnerable customers. While we’ve still got a lot of data yet to collect and no doubt a lot of challenges still to identify, our overall impression of the industry’s efforts has been remarkably positive.
Companies are generally recognising that there’s much more to their customers than simply the debts they owe.
They’re realising it’s in everyone’s interest to do this: not only does it make sense from a human perspective, but also from a commercial one. A little empathy seems to go an awfully long way in a debt collection setting, and ultimately this can lead to more favourable – and more profitable - outcomes.
It’s easy as social researchers to lambast businesses for trying to make a profit, and to criticise from the sidelines, but this is an approach that rarely improves outcomes for those who are struggling financially or the most vulnerable members of our society. Rather, our best bet is to listen to each other and ultimately work together to address any challenges we identify.
This means that we have to start by recognising that profit-making and socially desirable outcomes are not always two mutually exclusive concepts.
Money is, and probably always will be, something that we all spend a lot of time thinking about. We just need to make sure it’s not the only thing we think about.