/ Money

Going into debt for food – how has the recession affected you?

From charity shopping to staying in, our new report highlights how people are dealing with the effects of the recession. One stat jumped out at me – one in five people have recently gone in debt to pay for food.

The recession’s biting some harder than others. A member of my family has just been made redundant, so she immediately switched to a supermarket ‘basic’ range rather than buying branded food.

That’s quite a small change, but our first Consumers 2012 report on consumer spending habits found that some Brits are having to take even more drastic measures just to get by.

Going in to debt for food

Perhaps the most surprising result – and the one that’s got everyone talking – is that a fifth of the 2,000 people we surveyed had gone in to debt to pay for everyday essentials like food.

It’s awful that some are in this position, and it shows just how many on the lowest incomes are being affected by the economic downturn. But it’s not just those at the bottom of the pile who are struggling. Less than half the people we surveyed said that they were coping on their current income.

For some the downturn had served as a ‘reality check’ on their spending – giving them that extra nudge to reassess their finances and start saving.

Moneysaving tips

So what are people cutting back on to save money? Some of the most common changes mentioned were:

  • Socialising at home rather than going to the pub
  • Using the internet to compare prices
  • Shopping around for groceries to get the best deal
  • And buying things from second hand shops or charity shops.

Saving cash by socialising at home rather than going out is something I’ve always been keen on. I sometimes throw parties because it’s a nice, cheap way to get all of my friends together. Rather than asking my mates to fork out on a restaurant meal for my birthday, I’d prefer them to do something cheap or free – as long as it’s not too annoying for my neighbours.

Also high on my list of moneysaving behaviour is shopping in charity shops. My family bought each other charity shop presents (with a limit of £5) for Christmas and unearthed some fantastic gifts – I was very happy with my DVD box set of the Chronicles of Narnia.

I’m also a big fan of making things instead of buying directly from the shop (we’re a big fan of baking cupcakes in the Which? digital team!) mostly because we enjoy one-upping the previous person’s batch. But when I see how expensive it is to buy bakery cakes for the whole team, I realise it has moneysaving benefits too!

So have you noticed the impact of the recession on your wallet? Have you changed your spending habits to help get you through the economic downturn?


This recession hasn’t really affected my spending, being on the wrong end of a CSA judgement for the previous 10 years I’ve had to live like a hermit anyway. Just glad the maintenance payments stopped (my ex kicked our daughter out) when I was made redundant 18 months ago. I feel sorry for all those who have to have all mod cons and haven’t managed to save a penny (although having saved, apparently I don’t get benefits, supposedly cos I’m responsible with money, grrr). People look at me funny when they find out I don’t have a mobile, or drink or smoke.


I’ve tried to make more meals with lentils and beans.

It is a shame that so many people are unable to cook anything it would seem – in particular all those students going off to college unable to cook when they leave home! I recently noticed a college which does a week long cookery course specifically for them at a price but what a shame to have not learned this at home or at school! How short-sighted of us to have let this happen. They need to be able to cook something and have an idea of how to be flexible with the ingredients so that the fridge’s leftovers get used up too. (If you do this sober then you have a better chance of remembering the successful experiments!)

Neil from The Young Ones has suddenly become an amazing example of culinary skills.

They need a list of essentials to take off to uni: spaghetti measure, steamer, wooden spoon etc…


The info on packaging has a lot to answer for.

Every student fridge needs a print out explaining what the difference between Best Before and Use By dates is let alone all the others eg Display Until and Sell By.

It is quite ridiculous that eggs are still in the Best Before category yet have to be treated as if in a Use By date category. Also why are they not refrigerated in shops when we are expected to refrigerate them at home? If there is a permanent salmonella problem then why not change their category? What happens in the rest of Europe?

Food waste collections have helped people realise how much they are wasting. I feel that our young students are preyed on predatory drinks companies as soon as they leave the safety of home. When I was a student alcohol wasn’t so cheap, there was no credit and I had to feed and clothe myself for a small monthly amount.

Secondhand shops and freecycle and other specialist shops for books are very important and make a lot of difference as do University collections of things students no longer want at the end of term/end of the year which can be reused – instead of everything being dumped or senselessly trashed.

par ailleurs says:
6 March 2012

I’m actually comparably comfortable in retirement; not in any way wealthy but I have enough for my needs. I mostly choose the frugal options in a lot of shopping because the worst aspects of modern consumerism are simply appalling to me. Sometimes I wonder how many people complain of being hard up and hungry when they have a smartphone on contract, Sky TV and probably smoke too. Priorities are often wrong.
That said, there is clearly now an underclass at the very bottom of the heap who have no chance of surviving easily. It’s no good middle class types like me going on about the feckless in these cases as they are genuinely affected. I can choose to shop at a combination of stores and markets, paying by reward credit card and driving to different locations for the bargains. What do you do if you have no car, the bus costs a fortune, and you’re restricted to local convenience stores? Answer-you live as best you can and eat expensive food lacking in good nutrition. It’ll most likely be something that goes in the microwave as that’s the cheapest option compared with the sort of slow cooking on the hob or oven that I favour. The same people also won’t be able to access bank accounts or credit-other than shark lenders. It’s no wonder they are in trouble. The saddest thing is that I just can’t see a solution short of a revolution and that would be a two-edged sword. All suggestions welcomed!

Reality Check says:
7 March 2012

I am in the very fortunate position of being able to pay my “living” bills; gas/electric/food/fuel. I have, however, cut down enormously on eating out [I’m sorry for restaurant owners because it’s difficult for them too]. I am much more aware of food prices now but I do still buy pretty much what I want. Where I am far more conservative is buying fuel; I fill up my car, drive to work and back 5 days per week [round trip of 38 miles] and at the weekends, the car stays in the garage and I walk everywhere. I am desperately sorry for people who are having to go into savings just to survive, this is a sad indictment of our current predicament but I think we all needed a reality check on borrowings. It was just unsustainable.


Difficult to believe one wd need to go into debt
on account of food for those on very/low wages/income OR even if
in receipt of state handouts if real frugality repeat frugality were
practised such as NOT purchasing/consuming processed foods
or ready meals (when cooking from scratch is very much cheaper),
tobacco and alcohol in any quantity AND NOT running a car
(even if a banger), have smartphone on a contract and a smart
modern large screen connected laptop.

Purchase instead at the market and greengrocers which is very
much cheaper and every bit as fresh.

There’s also always the charity shops and the car boot sale
for clothing and other household needs. And Freecycle too.

Make use of free lending library as much as possible.

Additionally, use a bicycle and save on bus and train fares,
keeps you fit as well.

Patronise the Pound or 99p shops.

Form a co op if practical for foodshare purposes.

Sometimes the upmarket supermarkets have
cheap offers worth having, look around.

Have I missed out anything? And yes, buy in
bulk if possible as to non-perishables provided it works
out really much cheaper and make sure use them


Sadly, Argonaut, there are people who do all these things in order to economise and live frugally but they are nevertheless in debt for a range of valid reasons [like outstanding loans, credit card balances, hire purchase agreements, and the cost of heating an unmodernised property]. They might have high transport costs, and other expenses that are not offset by benefits and allowances.Many of the people who have to borrow to feed, heat and clothe themselves are elderly, or have been prevented by sickness or by accidents of history and geography, from building up a full pension entitlement. Many are living in oversized houses in poor condition and its just too easy to say they should move out and take a small flat. I agree with par ailleurs above: charges of extravagance or fecklessness are not appropriate. As a society we have to save people from descending into an undignified existence in a state of perpetual dependency and attracted by the opportunities of crime.



I take the very valid points that you make.
Was not referring to those with PRE-EXISTING
LIABILITIES that wd indeed have a detrimental effect on
standard of living. Was saying one shd be able
to live on a low income with practised frugality
incorporating all of the points I’d set out.

Might have thought abt releasing the equity of
property by scheme OR selling up large expensive-to-heat
house and moving to something smaller and
cheaper to maintain, thereby having funds to enjoy

Alternatively cd try to persuade
council to put a charge on house realisable after death
as to any debts or liabilities incurred inter vivos. Personally
and from a legal standpoint, do not see any problem
with this arrangement.

For older folks, there’s of course the
benefit of a free bus pass.

I believe there is a further safety net in the form of the
DLA or Attendance Allowance provided by the state.

Can always exhaust the inheritance!