• From 2004 to 2020, the proportion of adults with debt who feel their debt is a heavy burden rose and fell in line with inflation.  
  • Periods of rising inflation, such as between 2015 and 2018, are accompanied by an increase in the proportion of adults with debt who feel their debt is a burden.   
  • Inflation is forecast to rise into 2022. Inflation can erode income in the short run. This suggests there is a risk that the proportion of people with debt who feel their debt is a heavy burden may also rise.  

This chart shows the proportion of adults with debt who consider their debt is a heavy burden from 2004 to 2020. It also shows a measure of inflation, the Consumer Price Index (CPI), from Q1 2004 to Q2 2022 (including a forecast from Q4 2021). The NMG Household Survey moved from collecting data from respondents face-to-face (old series) to using online methods (new series), at which point the proportion who feel their debt is a burden increased. This might be due to methodological reasons such as reporting online making the respondent feel more anonymous and so be more likely to admit to struggling with their debt repayments. 

Inflation measures the rate at which prices are rising in the economy. A high rate of inflation indicates that common household goods and services are becoming more expensive for consumers. This reduces the real value of income. For this reason, inflation may affect the cost of debt repayments, in effect making repayments more expensive and a heavier financial burden due to lower ‘real’ wages. Inflation also erodes the value of debt, but in the short term can make repayments feel more difficult when other costs are rising. While eventually we would expect higher rates of inflation to erode the value of debt, it is likely that in the short run squeezed real incomes make debt repayments feel like more of a burden. is impact is likely to be greater on lower income families with less surplus income left after paying for essential goods and services. 

Being in problem debt can harm physical and mental health by acting as a source of strain and stress, reducing income available for health-promoting goods and services or increasing health-harming behaviours such as problem smoking. Poor health can also increase the possibility of problem debt, for example through employment loss or low income. This can create a cycle of problem debt and poor health. 

  • The proportion of adults who consider their debt is a burden has generally risen and fallen in line with CPI inflation from 2004 to 2020. 
  • Inflation reduced between 2011 and 2015, after a peak of 4.7% in Q2 2011; at the same time the proportion who consider their debt is a burden fell from 20% to 14%.  
  • During the rise in inflation following the Brexit referendum and devaluation of the pound, between 2015 and 2018, the proportion of adults who consider their debt is a burden rose from 14% to 21%.  


The proportion of adults with debt who consider their debt a heavy burden has previously risen and fallen in line with the inflation rate. Various factors including rising energy prices and supply chain problems increased the inflation rate in Q4 2021, and the inflation rate is expected to rise into 2022. The government needs to prepare now for possible debt problems in the future. 

  • Individuals were asked: ‘Thinking about the [overdraft(s)/credit card(s)/store card(s)/ credit agreement(s)/loan(s)/bill payments] you have just told me about, to what extent is keeping up with the repayment of them and any interest payments a financial burden to you?’ This analysis looks at the proportion of all respondents that live in a household that finds debt repayments a ‘heavy burden’. Other options include ‘somewhat of a burden’ and ‘not a problem at all’. 
  • The Consumer Price Index (CPI) is calculated by tracking the price movements of 650 items, which represents a basket of goods and services typically bought by the 'average' UK household. Here, the CPI has been calculated so that 2015 is the base year (2015 = 0%). This analysis uses the ONS CPI and the OBR CPI forecast

Source: Health Foundation analysis of the NMG Household Survey, 2004–11, 2011–2020 • The CPI is measured quarterly while the NMG Household Survey is an annual survey. Prior to 2011, the NMG Survey was conducted face-to-face. Since 2011, the survey has been conducted online.



Long read

Debt and health

20 January 2022

About 17 mins to read

Long read

Government action in 2020/21 eased financial pressures for many. But with those on low incomes and...

Related content


Working age adults behind with bills by income quintile


The proportion of adults behind with bills rose during the pandemic, before returning to...


Savings and income by health


Half of all working age people with poor health have no savings whatsoever.


Household problem debt and debt burden by income decile


People living in lower income households are more likely to experience problem debt or to feel that...

Explore the topics

Health inequalities

Money and resources





Neighbourhoods and surroundings

Coming soon

Family, friends and community

Coming soon

This is part of Evidence hub: What drives health inequalities?

Data, insights and analysis exploring how the circumstances in which we live shape our health