It is the ultimate irony – bailiffs knocking on the door of Wonga, the payday loan company. Schadenfreude is the order of the day: Wonga preyed on the vulnerable and got what it deserved. There is no place in a just society for a company that charges interest of up to 1,311 per cent.
The thing is, though, there was a time when, if I could have got my hands on a Wonga loan, I would have sunk to my knees in gratitude.
I must be one of the few people they actually turned down. In one of my darkest hours – running out of petrol on the M4 with 212 miles to go, and unable to pay a vet to euthanise a pet – I tried. Who cares about interest rates, or next week, or tomorrow, who even understands those stupid APR whatsits when you have £3 in your account and no one to turn to?
The thing is, though, there was a time when, if I could have got my hands on a Wonga loan, I would have sunk to my knees in gratitude
Wonga is, or was, a rubber ring that kept the desperate afloat for a little longer. Because, oh the sharks that encircle the poor!
When you’re made insolvent, as I was three years ago, you are forced by law to hire an insolvency practitioner, a ghastly breed I never want to encounter again. I imagine murderers are treated with more courtesy. Mine couldn’t wait to tell me my house was too grand, before he disappeared for an afternoon of golf.
Next, with no warning, you find you have hired an insolvency lawyer. I was in a job interview atop The Shard when a woman I’d never heard of called me: ‘If you don’t send £2,000 on account by 2pm, I will refuse to represent you, and you will automatically be made bankrupt.’
The Great Whites? The accountant, whom you sack for being incompetent, but who swiftly sends another bill. The agent, who gobbles up 15 per cent of your redundancy package, even though he never got you any work because, well, ‘you are an older woman’.
The Official Receiver, who had nosily looked up the house I was forced to sell on Rightmove, and told me: ‘No wonder it went for a song. Your kitchen was far too small.’ There are the piranhas, too, who nibble at your heels, making each day an assault course. You buy food only in dolly amounts, so worried are you about how much money you have left. The number of times I’ve been at the till in Tesco, debating with the lovely lady on checkout: ‘Do I need Comfort? No, take that back.’
The car loan, double the going rate because you have bad credit. The private landlords, not sympathetic for one second that you lost the dream house you worked 30 years to buy, intent only on giving you detailed instructions how to clean the cheap ceramic hob, when only days before you sold your desk, your sofas and every memory for a song.
There is no place in a just society for a company that charges interest of up to 1,311 per cent
Oh, I know there are plenty who’ll say: she’s only got herself to blame. But I wouldn’t wish what I’ve gone through over the past decade on my worst enemy.
So what has to change? Teach personal finance in schools. Make saving compulsory (why do so many large companies no longer have credit clubs?). Learn to rely on yourself, not a husband or job: both can disappear in the blink of an eye.
The hardest lesson I learned in my course in penury, which saw me made bankrupt last year, was that a debt of generosity is seldom repaid. From my extended family, many of whom I’d helped a great deal over the years, I received just one supportive text from a niece. Only one friend gave me anything: an Oyster card with £10 on it. I went pale with gratitude.
How did I crawl my way out of having to surreptitiously grab the free fruit in Tesco, the stuff meant for children?
I hired a debt adviser (a charity called Step Change is a fantastic option), and she saved my life. She was supportive but brutal. ‘Forget about your old life, Liz,’ she’d tell me when I’d be sobbing and suicidal. ‘That is over. Grieve and move on.’
Most importantly, she didn’t judge. She reassured me I wasn’t alone. She told me how a single mum had been forced to get in touch. She had lost everything. The reason? Her son had driven into a traffic bollard late at night, a bollard that was broken and therefore not lit; he killed another driver, and was jailed. His mum spent every penny trying to clear his name.
My generosity, my desire to be liked, was my downfall, probably the reason more women than men are made insolvent every year. We are the home-makers, the cooks, the people-pleasers. Wonga, for all its manifest faults, was a lifeline to some unlucky souls who probably only wanted to feed the kids.
It may have only served to drag them further down, but at least it stopped them drowning for a while.