Ask VICE is a series where readers ask VICE to solve their problems, from dealing with unrequited love to handling annoying flatmates. Today, we’re hoping to help a reader whose worried their friend might be slipping into a debt spiral.
I’m worried about a friend, let’s call her Esmée. She acts like nothing’s wrong, but I believe she’s in serious debt and unable to face reality. I’m worried she’ll end up losing her home, but I don’t know how to help her.
As far as I know, Esmée had a regular childhood. Her parents are sweet and they always gave her the freedom to be herself. When she didn’t want to go to uni, that was no problem - as long as she did something that made her happy.
Over the years, she’s had several jobs, but I don’t think she’s figured out what she wants to do with her life – which is fine, of course. She’s been living in a very small, but cute, apartment in the city of Groningen for years. But her lifestyle is pretty chaotic – she’s a night owl who doesn’t keep to a schedule and she’s very spontaneous. These are all attributes I’ve appreciated over the years, but now, I’m worried they’ll lead to her downfall.
A while back, Esmée was declared unfit to work, due to burnout. She’s been on benefits ever since. Now and then, she tries a new side job -but always crashes and quits after a few weeks. Her life has lost all structure.
Sometimes, she lies in bed all day and watches TV all night. She doesn’t cook and routinely orders takeaways. When I stayed over at her place once, she wanted to order food three times in one day, instead of walking to the shop. She also pays someone to clean her house and is constantly buying expensive gifts for her brother’s newborn son. She orders new clothes for herself online - without fail - on a weekly basis. Her house is filled with the orders. She donates a few items to charity every month, but I have no idea how she can afford them in the first place.
I was at her place a few weeks ago - feeding her fish while she was away - and found a few unopened envelopes from Klarna, the online credit service. There were also late payment notices. Some of the unopened letters were a few months old.
I carefully asked Esmée if everything was OK and whether she needed help - I even called it “financial support” - but she said everything was fine. Apparently, I “sounded like her mother”.
How do I start a real conversation about her issues?
With the rising cost of living and an unprecedented spike in mental health issues, many young people are unable to cope with expenses. If your friend really is in debt, she’s definitely not alone. Even though it might feel like everyone else has their financial situation together, many people face hardship behind closed doors. But money is always a delicate subject – how do you bring these issues up in a helpful way?
Annemiek den Held is a social worker based in Amsterdam who helps people settle debts with landlords or health insurance companies. Den Held thinks it’s great that you’ve picked up on these signals and you’re invested in supporting your friend. She also believes what you mentioned could definitely point to financial troubles.
“I think payment reminders and late payment notices are a good conversation start point,” says den Held. “It’s definitely a sign that Esmée struggles to keep up with her admin. That doesn’t necessarily mean she’s experiencing financial hardship, but there’s a chance she’s missing payments.”
Den Held explains that people who are in debt often find comfort in buying things. Especially since, nowadays, many services offer delayed payment services, making it easier than ever to spend money you don’t have.
“Stress does all sorts of things to the brain,” says den Held. “It can impair your ability to make long-term decisions, and instead, choose things that feel good in the short term.” This could explain Esmée’s frequent purchases and daily meal deliveries - a short-sighted solution for real, and pressing, problems.
“Debt often arises after many things have piled up,” says den Held. “You might be able to deal with one high energy bill, but when you miss multiple payments, it can spiral fast. If you also don’t feel good, it can be tough to tackle situations in time; it’s like dominoes.”
According to den Held, you should approach this discussion when it’s just the two of you - and when you have enough time to get stuck into it. “It’s very easy to tell her she’s made ‘crazy decisions’ or express bewilderment over how bad things’ve got, but that won’t be useful,” she says. “You don’t want to make Esmée feel like you’re trying to parent her, but you do want her to know that you’ll listen, like a friend.”
The best way to tackle debt varies from person to person, den Held explains, so it’s super important not to judge. Instead, understand what she actually needs. Is Esmée looking for financial advice? Does she mainly need to vent? Would it help her to have someone be with her while she opens the late payment notices?
You can also lend Esmée a helping hand with day-to-day tasks. You might go to the supermarket with her to get a week’s worth of groceries or buy a bottle of wine and plan an evening at home, instead of going out. “What probably won’t help is giving Esmée money,” says den Held. “Before you take a step like that, it’s important to get the full picture. Otherwise, you run the risk of pouring cash into a bottomless well.”
Asking for help is the first step in ensuring no more dominoes fall over. The next step, is looking at the bigger picture. Debt is often a symptom of an underlying issue. Maybe Esmée has been struggling with depression. Maybe she just misses a routine, now she’s out of a job.
It’s also important to be well-informed before broaching the topic, so you can give actionable advice. You can support her by putting her in touch with local debt relief organisations, renter rights organisations or therapists, specialised in burnout or unhealthy shopping habits. These kinds of professionals can definitely help her, too.
Ultimately, you should always keep in mind that “anyone can end up in debt,” says den Held. “But with the right support, anyone can get out of it, too.”