A quarter of UK adults have less than £100 set aside in savings, a survey suggests, leaving them vulnerable to rising and unexpected bills.
The lack of a financial safety net means many have to borrow money to cover any extra costs, creating greater anxiety about their plight.
One mother told the BBC she was scared of being judged so did not seek help.
The Money and Pensions Service, which conducted the research, said such fears could be overcome with family help.
Debt advisors are expecting a sharp increase in enquiries over the winter as people struggle to fund higher food and energy bills, with little to fall back on.
‘I wish I’d asked for help earlier’
This latest survey of 3,000 people found that 17% – or one in six – of those asked held nothing in savings. Another 5% had less than £50 and a further 4% had between £50 and £100 set aside.
If those figures reflect the UK as a whole, then millions of people will have little or nothing as a savings buffer.
Among them is Kylie, a mother-of-six who faced difficulties that left her failing to pay critical, and priority, bills. She just about managed to pay her rent, to keep a roof over her family’s head, but was behind on many other payments.
The 31-year-old said some of the more aggressive debt collection left her children frightened, and her finances were in a mess.
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Her energy provider told her to seek help from a debt charity, but she said she was scared to do so.
“I felt like I would be judged and looked down on,” she said.
When she did eventually seek help, the advisors were kind and helpful, she said, and crucially told her about the various hardships funds and grants that were available to her.
“But I would have been in a better position if I had done it earlier,” she said.
She came to an arrangement with her creditors, so she pays back a more affordable amount each month. She recently managed to save £40 – for the first time in years.
The idea of saving money will be alien to many people struggling with the rising cost of living. A recent survey by the Building Societies Association (BSA) found 35% of those questioned had stopped saving as a result of the rising cost of living.
Meanwhile, 36% of those asked said they were relying on their savings to get through a period of rising bills and prices. Some credit unions are offering ways to help families save for expensive times of year, such as Christmas.
Talking to loved ones
The Money and Pensions Service runs the Moneyhelper website, which includes a free debt advice locator.
It is running a week-long Talk Money campaign urging people to open up about their finances and is encouraging people to plan for their financial future and take free debt advice as soon as they realise they could be facing difficulties.
“Millions of people find it a challenge to save, and this leaves them vulnerable when sudden expenditure items arise. When you add in the anxiety that they feel with their credit commitments, the weight of that worry can quickly become overwhelming,” said Caroline Siarkiewicz, chief executive of the government-backed organisation.
“We want everyone to start the conversation with family or friends and share the burden of any money worries. By dealing with the problem head on, people can discover just how helpful free debt advice can be and see the importance of talking to their creditors early. They can also begin to find a way forward, no matter how difficult their situation might feel.”
Kylie, meanwhile, is looking forward to Christmas, but with some trepidation. She said her food bill shot up when her children were on school holidays.
“I am trying to do my best, and save for Christmas,” she said. “At the moment, we are just living week by week.”
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