Log in to Gingerbread

You need to be logged in to save pages.

Forgotten your password?

Not registered yet?

Our community membership is open to all single parents in England and Wales and gives you access to local and online support, news and events.

Register now

Dealing with debt

Managing on one income can be tough, and there are lots of reasons you might find yourself with money problems. This can often be things beyond your control, like a drop in your income or separating from a partner. 

If you find yourself struggling, you don’t need to deal with it on your own. There are many places to get free help and advice from people who won’t judge you. 

This page contains information to help you take control of your situation. It covers everything from budgeting and managing household bills to dealing with debt.

Understanding your situation 

Making a budget

What to pay first

Other bills

Tips for paying what you owe

Other ways to deal with debt

If the court gets involved 

Dealing with bailiffs

Get good advice

Debt can be stressful and overwhelming, so don’t feel you have to deal with it on your own. There are lots of free advice services you can turn to. A debt adviser won’t judge you, no matter how large your debt or how you got into it. They will help you find ways to manage your debt even if you don’t have much spare money.

  • Call StepChange or National Debtline for free personalised advice. They also have online information and tools that can help you budget and make an action plan.
  • Citizens Advice has a debt helpline, or you can visit your local Citizens Advice for face-to-face help.

To find other face-to-face and local services, use the debt advice locator on the MoneyHelper website.

Understanding your situation

Being in debt can be really stressful. But the sooner you do something about it, the easier it will be to take care of. And you might start to feel better about it, too.  

The first thing to do is make a list of all your unpaid bills, including any money you owe to friends and family. Include bills that you’re not behind on yet but are struggling with. Especially if trying to pay them is leaving you short of money for other essentials. 

If you’re not sure what debts you have, you can get a free credit history report. This will list all the money you’ve borrowed and paid back, including joint debts. It shows whether you paid the money back on time and in full. 

These companies offer credit history reports:

Basic credit reports are free. You don’t have to take the paid-for version you’ll probably be offered. It’s worth getting a copy of your report from all 3, as they might hold different information from different places.

Which debts will you have to pay?

Generally, it’s up to you to pay all the bills that are in your name. But there are some exceptions to this – you might not always have to pay them back. This can be the case if, when you took on the debt: 

  • You were under 18 
  • You were experiencing mental health problems 
  • Someone else pressured you to do it 
  • No one checked that you could afford the repayments
  • The agreement wasn’t clear

You should also get advice if it’s been more than 6 years since you made a payment or wrote to the person you owe the money to. There’s no need to pay for advice about debt. This area of law is complicated and there’s good free, impartial advice and support out there. 

You can speak to an adviser at StepChange or National Debtline. You can also find one through MoneyHelper

You won’t be judged or told off. Most people feel relieved and less stressed after speaking to someone and making a plan.   

Joint debts

Joint debts are when you owe money with another person – they tend to be things like rent, mortgage, Council Tax, loans, bank accounts or credit agreements. If a bill is in more than one name, you and the other named person are both responsible for paying it. This means that either one of you can be asked to pay back the full amount. If the other person named on the bill can’t or won’t pay the debt, you can be asked to pay all of it. If this is the case, make sure you give the contact details of the other person to the company you owe money to (the creditor) so that they can be asked for payments too. 

There might be debts that you still have to deal with, even if you don’t see them as yours. For example, you might need to pay your rent or mortgage to make sure you can stay in your home. If your mortgage or rent agreement is in joint names or only in someone else’s name, get advice about your right to stay in the property

For free housing advice, speak to organisations like Shelter and Citizens Advice

Making a budget

Making a budget will help you see what money you have, where it goes and if you could make any savings. This will also show what money, if any, you have left over to pay debts. 

Your budget can be a simple list of your income and household spending each week or month. Be honest with yourself, and write down what you really spend. It won’t work otherwise, and you’ll end up falling behind on your payment plans. Include regular household bills in your budget, like gas and electricity. Write down the amount that you should pay each week/month if you weren’t behind in your payments. List any debts and payments that you’re behind on separately.

There’s a great budgeting tool on the National Debtline website that can help you do this.

Once you can see your income and what you spend written down, you might be able to think of ways to save or pay off your debt.

If the people you owe money to are setting up a payment plan, they might ask to see a copy of your budget. Debt advisers might also use it to work out your options.

Dina’s story

Dina is a single parent with children who are 6 and 8 years old. She works 16 hours a week and earns £112 a week. Her rent is £116 a week and her council tax is £4 a week. Dina doesn’t have any childcare costs as her mum collects the children from school. This is her weekly budget.

Example budget
Household income each week
Wages  £     112.00
Working Tax Credit  £       74.00
Child Tax Credit  £     114.00
Child benefit  £       33.00
Housing benefit  £       90.00
Total  £     423.00
Spending each week
Rent  £     116.00
Council Tax  £         4.00
Water rates  £         8.00
House insurance  £         7.00
Gas  £       20.00
Electricity  £       15.00
Telephone (home)  £       12.00
Mobile phone  £       10.00
TV package  £         6.00
TV licence  £         3.00
Food, toiletries  £       90.00
Clothing  £       15.00
Travel  £       25.00
School meals  £       11.00
Swimming lessons  £       15.00
Other expenses  £       10.00
Emergencies  £       10.00
Total  £     377.00
Money owed
Council Tax  £     200.00
Gas  £     150.00
Loan  £ 1,000.00
Credit card  £     250.00
Friend  £       25.00
Total  £ 1,625.00
Total income  £     423.00
– Total spending  £     377.00
Money for creditors  £       46.00

What to pay first

Some bills are more important than others. These are called priority debts, and not repaying them can lead to serious problems. So always start by paying these first. Speak to an adviser if you need help working out which debts are a priority.


First, see if you can get financial help from the government. Universal Credit has replaced Housing Benefit for most people. You might be able to get this, even if you’re working. If you’re already getting Housing Benefit, you can keep claiming it until you’re moved onto Universal Credit, choose to claim Universal Credit, or your circumstances change. See our page on Universal Credit.

If you’re struggling to pay your rent even with Universal Credit or Housing Benefit, you can apply to your local council for a Discretionary Housing Payment. This is a top-up to cover more of your rent. It’s up to your council to decide if you qualify for this. 

You could also try asking your landlord if you can pay late rent bit by bit (in installments). Use your budget to see what you can afford to pay and start making regular payments. 

If your landlord says no and you can’t afford to pay the late rent, or you might be evicted or asked to leave, get some help. Organisations like Citizens Advice, National Debtline and StepChange can help you see what your options are and what you should do next.


You could offer to pay off late mortgage payments bit by bit (in installments). It’s important to tell your mortgage lender about why you fell behind with your payments, especially if things are better now. You can also send them a copy of your budget, showing how much you can afford to pay on top of your usual monthly payments. 

You could also check your mortgage agreement or speak to your lender to see if you can take a payment break.  Before you do this, make sure you understand what it will mean for you – and how it might affect your future mortgage payments. 

If you’re getting Universal Credit, or an older benefit like Jobseeker’s Allowance or  Income Support, you might be able to get help with your mortgage interest. This is called Support for Mortgage Interest. Talk to us to get advice or speak to the office that pays your benefit to claim.

Leaving your home

If you’re thinking of leaving your home because you’re behind with your rent or mortgage, get advice first. Your local authority might not house you if you leave your home voluntarily. But remember this doesn’t apply if you have to leave because it’s not safe – for example, because of serious disrepair or risk of domestic abuse. 


If you get an eviction notice from the county court because you’re behind with your rent or mortgage payments, act quickly. Shelter and Citizens Advice can help.

A landlord or mortgage company will nearly always need to get a court order to evict you, unless your landlord lives with you. Even if you’re getting letters threatening eviction, it might not be too late. 

The court notice should give the date when you have to leave. You can ask the court to suspend the eviction. This usually means you have to meet certain conditions, like paying back the money you owe in instalments. 

If you can’t get advice before the court hearing, ask if an adviser can be available on the day. Make sure you arrive early and take any paperwork with you, including your household budget and a list of other debts.

If you’re evicted and have nowhere to stay, your local council might be able to give you emergency housing straightaway. If you have children who usually live with you or if you’re pregnant, you’ll be seen as a priority for help.

Gas and electricity bills

If you’re behind on your gas or electricity payments, first of all, don’t panic. Your supplier has to help you find a solution. 

First, check if your supplier is allowed to disconnect you. Ask if they’ve signed up to the Energy UK Vulnerability Commitment – most suppliers have. This means you can’t be disconnected between 1 October and 31 March if you live with children under 16, or at any time of year if you have children under 6.

Here are some other things you can do if you’re behind on gas or electricity payments:

  • Arrange for payments to be taken directly from your benefits through the Fuel Direct scheme. A fixed amount will be taken to cover what you owe and, if you want, an extra amount for your current gas or electricity use. Jobcentre Plus can help you set this up. You can only do this if you’re getting Universal Credit, Income Support, Pension Credit, income-based Jobseekers’ Allowance or income-related Employment and Support Allowance.
  • Ask your supplier if you can pay back what you owe through a payment plan. This means paying an extra amount each week or month on top of your usual bill. Make sure you only agree to what you can definitely afford to pay.  
  • Agree to have a prepayment meter installed. But remember that if you can’t afford to top up your meter credit, you won’t have gas or electricity. You might be able to get a fuel voucher from your local council that you can use to add credit. Some companies also charge you more for these meters, which makes it more expensive. 
  • Apply for a grant from a charity to help pay. Lots of gas and electricity companies have charitable funds which can help if you’re behind. You often don’t even have to be their customer to apply to them. You can check what you might be able to get using a grant finder tool. Go through the first search and then click on Energy and water providers. 

If you’re find it hard to reach agreement with your supplier, ask Citizens Advice for help. These articles might also be useful: 

Council Tax

If you’re the only adult in your home who has to pay Council Tax, make sure you’re getting a 25% single adult discount. If you’re on a low income, you might be able to get a Council Tax Reduction – even if you own your home or are working. 

If you’re behind with your payments, councils can chase the money in various ways, including using bailiffs and taking money straight from your wages or benefits. 

So it’s important to get in touch with your local council as soon as you start having trouble paying. Arrange to pay by instalments or ask the council if there are other repayment options. You can also speak to an adviser at Citizens Advice if you’re worried about paying your council tax.

Other bills

You will eventually need to deal with all your debts, even bills that are less of a priority.  You might be contacted by people asking for payment. Don’t make promises that you can’t keep or feel you have to answer their phone calls. But do always open letters from creditors and get advice if you need it. 

Here are some examples of lower priority debts and what might eventually happen if you don’t pay them. You might be able to stop this happening if you tackle the problem as soon as possible.

  • Credit cards, store cards, unsecured loans – you might get a default notice and be sent to the county court. This will be registered on your credit history and you might find it hard to get credit in the future.
  • Water – your water can’t be cut off, but you’ll be expected to pay back the money you owe. The supplier can go to the county court if you don’t. 
  • Hire purchase (a way to spread the cost of buying an expensive item such as a car) – most likely the item will be taken back and sold by the creditor if you don’t pay what you owe. The creditor can go to the county court if there’s still money owed after it’s been sold.

Tips for paying what you owe

Generally speaking, it’s always best to get specialist advice on your situation. Organisations like StepChange and National Debtline can give you tailored advice on how to deal with the people chasing you for money. And their services are free. If you have problems with mental health and money, visit Mental Health and Money Advice.

Here’s some more general advice.

  • Find out which debts to pay first.  Start by repaying priority debts, where the consequences of not paying are far more serious than others. A debt advisor can help you work out which debts to start with.
  • Try not to feel pressured by organisations who contact you often. The ones who think they’re a lower priority will often contact you the most often. Get advice to help work out your priorities and stick to your plan of action. 
  • Be prepared to explain your budget. Creditors might ask about your household spending. For example, your food bill may be higher than average if someone in your household needs a special diet. 
  • Think about opening a new bank account if you’re overdrawn or owe money to the bank that you have your wages or benefits paid into. Try a basic account with a bank you don’t owe money to. You can then have your wages and benefits paid into the new account instead of the overdrawn one – and treat the old account as a lower-priority debt. This will stop the bank that you owe money to taking control of any income you have coming into your account. 
  • Cancel direct debits and make payments manually. This will stop you from getting charged if your bank account is overdrawn or you don’t always have money in the account to meet the payments.
  • Keep to your plan. Once you’ve chosen a strategy or payment plan, stick to it. It’s better to make low regular payments than to pay different amounts each time. If you pay a lot one month, the creditor might think that you can always afford that much. If you have any money left over in your budget, put it to one side for emergencies or use it to finish the payments early when you’ve saved enough.

Other ways to deal with debt

There are lots of ways you can get help if you’re behind with payments. The good thing is that debt can always be managed if you make a plan and stick to it – no matter how much you owe. The best thing to do is get good advice to work out your options.

Make sure you’re getting all the benefits you can

Check that you’re getting all the benefits and tax credits that you should be, including help with your rent or council tax. The Child Maintenance Service can help to set up child maintenance payments if you don’t already get these from your child’s other parent. 

You can talk to us to get tailored advice on benefits and child maintenance.

Breathing space

This gives you temporary protection from the people you owe money to. Creditors – including landlords and mortgage lenders – can’t take any action against you during this time. It’s designed to give you some time and space to get debt advice and find a longer-term solution.

There are 2 types: 

  1. A standard Breathing Space of up to 60 days – a  debt adviser can apply for you.
  2. A Mental Health Crisis Breathing Space – if you’re having treatment for a mental health crisis. This lasts for as long as your treatment, plus 30 days. You need to apply with the support of an Approved Mental Health Practitioner (AMHP). Speak to the healthcare professional who is most involved in your care to find an approved practitioner who can help you. 

More about Breathing Space

A voluntary payment plan

You agree to pay the debt bit by bit through affordable instalments. The creditor might agree to freeze interest and accept much lower payments until you can pay more.

A debt management plan

You pay a set amount each month to a company, who shares this between your creditors. You can get free debt management plans, so make sure you don’t use a company that will charge you for this.

Administration order

This is when you make one affordable payment each month to the court. You need to have debts under £5,000 and at least one county court judgment for this. The court might agree to a ‘composition order’ so you only have to pay this for a few years – not until all the debts are cleared. Whether this is possible will depend on your circumstances.

Individual Voluntary Arrangement (IVA)

This is when your debts are tied to a formal agreement drawn up by an insolvency practitioner. The amount you have to pay each month varies, but can be a minimum of £100. It’s quite costly to set one of these up, so it might not be the best option if you owe less than £10,000 in total.


Declaring bankruptcy means most of your debt will be written off. This has serious long-term consequences, so always get advice before going bankrupt.

Debt relief order

This is similar to bankruptcy, but cheaper. It’s only available for those on a low income with debts up to £30,000. Some debts can’t be included. You’ll need a specialist adviser to help you with the application.

If the courts get involved

If you don’t pay off your debts, the people you owe can go to the county court to try to get the money. You might be able to stop this happening if you get advice as soon as you start to fall behind, and if you agree to pay bit by bit (in instalments). 

If someone you owe money to gets a county court judgment, there are a few things they can do. They could send bailiffs to your home. If you own your home or have a mortgage, they might try to secure large debts against your property. But they would need an extra court order called a charging order first. 

If you already have a county court judgment for a debt, it’s not too late to do something about it. You might be able to have the court order changed so that you pay the debt in affordable instalments and stop any more action.

Dealing with bailiffs

A bailiff is someone who’s been given the job of collecting the money you owe. The people you owe money to will usually need a court order before they can use a bailiff. 

You’ll get a letter called a notice of enforcement first. Don’t ignore this – if you do, bailiffs can visit you after a week. If you can afford to pay off your debt, call them straight away and pay it. If you can’t, ask to pay back a smaller amount or even get the debt written off. Citizens Advice can give you more advice.

If bailiffs visit your home

Generally speaking, it’s best not to let bailiffs into your home. Unless they have a warrant to evict you, most bailiffs can’t come in by force. They have to enter ‘peacefully’ – through an open door or window. 

Bailiffs can’t enter your home if they know there’s no one over 16 there. If the only people there are under 12, they shouldn’t even ask questions at the door.

If you have children or are pregnant, you’re classed as ‘vulnerable’ – especially if you’re a single parent. This means bailiffs can’t come into your home if you’re the only person there. They also have to give you extra time to make a payment offer or get debt advice. Let the bailiff and your creditor know as soon as possible if this applies to you.

If bailiffs want to take your belongings

Bailiffs might try to take away your things to compensate for the money you owe. Most will offer a payment plan as an alternative to taking your things. Try not to be pressured into paying more than you can manage. Send the bailiff company a copy of your budget. A debt adviser might be able to help you to negotiate with them. 

Bailiffs are not allowed to take your children’s things or essential household items that you need to care for your children (like beds and fridges). They can only take things that belong to the person who owes the debt. Bailiffs collecting court fines from magistrates have wider powers but shouldn’t take beds or clothes. ‘Goods’ can include cars or other vehicles. 

All bailiffs must be registered, and many belong to professional bodies who have a code of conduct. If you feel threatened or harassed by a bailiff, you can complain to the company they work for. Speak to a debt adviser if you need help making a complaint.

Look after yourself

Struggling with money and debt as a single parent can be hard on your mental health. If you’re feeling depressed, anxious or stressed, speak to your GP about getting support.

If you need to talk to someone right now, you can call Samaritans free 24 hours a day on 116 123. Or you can text Shout on 85258 to message with a trained volunteer.

If you’re feeling suicidal, go to A&E or call 999. Mind has advice about what to do in a crisis.

Date last updated: 28 June 2023

New Report