As living costs continue to rise, nurses at all levels are feeling the pressure, borrowing money, cutting back on essentials – let alone luxuries – and asking charities for help. Craig Kenny reports on NT’s exclusive survey
Half of the UK’s nurses cannot make ends meet. Many are struggling to pay mounting monthly mortgage repayments and, as a result, some are being forced into making hard choices on a daily basis between choosing to feed their families properly or keep them warm.
Key NT survey findings
Nurses with children say they have been unable to buy new school uniforms this year. Others cannot afford to pay for essential household repairs on their homes.
Large numbers admit to racking up debts which they cannot afford, just to meet the basic costs of daily living. And growing numbers are facing bankruptcy or house repossession, according to a Nursing Times poll.
The survey of 1,200 NT readers was conducted over the past few weeks as the global financial systems tottered on the brink of insolvency. Since then, the economic situation has worsened, which suggests that money is likely to become tighter yet in the months ahead.
Two-thirds of nurses surveyed said they were concerned about their finances and half said they were already in debt.
Not counting mortgages, many nurses said they had debts of between £10,000 and £20,000. One owed £150,000. Two-fifths of nurses said the amount they owed had gone up in the past year.
Although 17% of nurses with mortgages said they were struggling to meet their mortgage payments, fuel bills were the biggest concern. The average cost of gas and electricity has increased by an average of 38% this year, according to consumer watchdog Consumer Focus.
Emma had only been qualified as a nurse for two years when her mother fell ill and she had to cut her hours.
Still paying off student loans, and now with a mortgage and a young family, she began using credit cards to pay for essential items.
‘It was all too easy,’ she says. ‘They were throwing money at us, coming round the house to persuade us to take out another loan.’
Soon, she had amassed debts of £100,000. ‘I felt out of control, especially with the worry about what might happen over interest rates,’ she recalls.
‘It impacts on your home life. You get so short tempered. You get a horrible letter from a company you owe money to, and then the kids come in and say they want a new game. And you say: “No, I want us to eat.”
‘I shouldn’t say this but I fully understand why people kill themselves. I’d never do that but I have been so distraught.
‘You feel you have nowhere to turn. You get threatening post from companies. I wrote to them but it was a losing battle. They didn’t acknowledge receiving
Finally, in a panic, Emma contacted the RCN’s welfare service, who referred her to a reputable debt charity.
They helped her work out her finances and draw up a debt management plan. She now pays money to the charity, which deals with her creditors and is considering whether to enter into an individual voluntary agreement with her creditors.
‘We are managing OK now, I feel we are on top of things,’ says Emma.
‘I have increased my hours recently by working bank shifts,’ she adds.
‘I know a lot of other nurses who are having financial problems. My advice is – don’t battle it alone. Do seek help.’
Names changed on request
With just a 2.75% pay rise this year – now well below inflation – more than one-third of nurses are having to working longer hours with 23% of nurses taking on extra bank shifts to help them pay their bills and 14% a second job.
Nursing unions and charities have seen a surge in demand for financial advice and assistance this year from nurses who cannot cope.
The RCN Welfare Service is dealing with 33 cases of severe debt, including eight repossession cases, each month. These figures from August represent an increase of 23% on the same month last year.
Clare Cannings, welfare adviser for the RCN’s Welfare Service, says that a sudden change in circumstances that is beyond nurses’ control can make the difference between breaking even and being unable to meet financial commitments.
‘Either the base rate goes up or they come off a fixed-term mortgage and can’t afford to remortgage – that difference of a few £100 means the whole thing topples,’ she explains.
‘In other cases, a nurse may have been doing extra shifts to meet payments then suddenly those shifts are no longer available,’ she adds.
People faced with a reduced income often have to make a decision which expenses to sacrifice, she says. ‘Quite often, it’s the mortgage that goes first.’
But she warns: ‘Mortgage lenders don’t tend to be very aggressive until you have missed two months’ payments, unlike credit card companies, which make several reminders. Then mortgage lenders come down like a ton of bricks.’
NurseAid, the UK’s leading benevolent charity for nurses, has seen such a rise in applications for financial help that it has been forced to actively fundraise for the first time in its 97-year history, as income from investments is no longer keeping pace with requests for help.
Director Ann Marie Barnard says nurses tend to be particularly vulnerable to economic downturns because they seldom have savings.
‘One woman could not afford to buy her son a school uniform – she is at the end of her tether,’ she says.
‘There are people who can’t afford the phone bill and the phone has been cut off. One woman cannot shut the window in her son’s room and it’s freezing but she can’t afford to repair it.
‘One nurse who can’t work due to ill health is certain her home will be repossessed. Her husband is in a low-paid job and they calculated they would be better off on benefits.’
Financial survival tips
And it is not just junior nurses who are experiencing problems. ‘We are getting applications from people at a higher level of income than before, with a marked increase in those at band 6,’ says Ms Barnard.
Unison’s welfare department has seen an 18% rise in members seeking financial assistance or advice.
Team leader Tina Willis says: ‘There is a huge number of people who are working very hard and acting responsibly, not taking on unnecessary credit, but who now can’t meet their basic outgoings.
‘Even senior nursing staff may have taken on mortgages quite responsibly, at a level they can afford, but increases in basic living costs mean they can no longer meet those commitments. Moreover, because of the state of the housing market, they can’t sell it either.
‘A lot of people are also worried about fuel rises. Some people are saying they will have to make choices between food and fuel – it’s that bad,’ she adds.
Mental health nurse Catherine’s money troubles began when she took a 17% pay cut to move from working on the wards to in the community.
She had to borrow £3,000 from her father to buy a car so that she could make the 29-mile round trip to and from work. In addition, she has a £1,000 bank overdraft.
Unlike most community psychiatric nurses, Catherine’s trust pays her on band 5 instead of band 6. Now that she has lost unsocial hours pay, she has to work extra bank shifts at weekends to make ends meet.
‘I’ve just taken my first annual leave in 17 months and that was for only two days,’ she says. ‘At one point I was working 21 days consecutively but I’ve had to cut down because of the effect on my health,’ she adds.
She has been forced to move into cheaper rented accommodation, and her partner has moved in with her so they can save money.
‘I would not be able to get a mortgage,’ she says. ‘Prices here are exorbitant, and I would be looking at paying £750 a month just for the interest. That’s half my wages.
‘I have had to change to shopping in cheaper supermarkets and get my clothes from Primark. ‘We never go out for dinner like normal people do and have not been on holiday for years.’
She recently switched electricity suppliers to a company that pledged not to increase its prices – then it reneged on the promise. Domestic fuel costs her around £50 a month.
‘We are looking for a second-hand Calor gas fire to heat the lounge now,’ she says.
She continues: ‘I had to borrow off my dad again last Christmas to buy presents because my wages didn’t go through. That’s the second time the trust has made that mistake.’
Names changed on request
For nursing students, debt has always been a way of life but now even they are finding the pressure too much. A recent Unison survey of 360 healthcare students, most of them nurses, found that almost half had considered quitting their courses due to financial problems, with debts of £10,000 or more held by almost one-quarter.
Much of this has been caused by universities stopping students bursaries. Unison estimates that 17% of nursing students have their bursary altered during their course, often as a result of sick leave.
Rising fuel costs are hitting nurses – not only in the home. Our survey shows that 84% of community nurses are not fully reimbursed for fuel used in the course of their work.
This is despite the 10% mandatory increase in fuel reimbursement payments that was won by nursing unions in July. The deal came when petrol prices reached a record high of 119.7p per litre for unleaded, a 40% increase on 2005.
Julie Connolly, professional officer for the Community District Nursing Association, says: ‘There’s no consistency around the country for what people are paid for their mileage. It appears that not everyone is paid according to the engine capacity of their cars, and some are not qualifying.’
One community nurse who spoke to NT is being reimbursed only 29p per mile for a 1.4-litre engine car. The agreed rate is 53.8p per mile.
If debts start mounting, it is vital to seek financial advice from a reputable adviser as soon as possible. The Citizen’s Advice Bureau and the RCN Welfare Service can signpost appropriate services. Longer repayment terms can be negotiated or
debt moved to a loan with better terms, such as a lower interest rate. And, even though individual voluntary agreements and bankruptcy are the last resort, there is life after them.
Ms Canning says people’s perceptions of bankruptcy have changed in the past few years and the terms have been relaxed.
‘There are more bankruptcies going through, so they are more likely to know someone going through one,’ she says.
‘The discharge time for bankruptcy is now shorter – 12 months – and it’s also easier now to get a basic bank account post bankruptcy. It can offer a fresh start.’
While there can be no escaping the fact that recent turmoil in the banking sector means there will be tough times ahead
for all, there are at least some advantages to working as a nurse during these uncertain times. According to a recent survey of 400 employment agencies by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation and KPMG, healthcare is one of the few sectors to escape a downturn in the employment market.
Where to go for advice
RCN Welfare Service offers advice to members in financial difficulty due to a sudden drop in income. The RCN Benevolent Fund provides one-off grants in some cases of hardship
NurseAid is a charity that gives financial help to nurses, nursing students and nursing auxiliaries nurseaid.org.uk 01386 446023
Unison Welfare is a registered charity offering advice on issues, including debt, to Unison members unison.org.uk 020 7551 1620