Helen Undy, Chief Executive, Money and Mental Health

Mental health is at the heart of the UK’s new Strategy for Financial Wellbeing

21 January 2020

“11.5m people have less than £100 in savings to fall back on. 9m people often borrow to buy food or pay for bills. 22m people say they don’t know enough to plan for their retirement. And 5.3m children do not get a meaningful financial education.”

So opens the new UK Strategy for Financial Wellbeing, published today by the Money and Pensions Service — leaving us in no doubt about the scale of change that is needed. It is not acceptable that millions of people in the UK are having to borrow to pay for life’s essentials, with no savings and no financial plan for the future. And it’s particularly unacceptable that this group of people are disproportionately likely to be living with mental health problems. Fixing this requires a bold plan, and that’s certainly what today’s publication aims to be. 

But to turn grand plans into real change quickly requires focus and prioritisation. So it’s great to see that the new UK strategy sets out some very specific targets, how progress towards them will be measured, and prioritises groups of people most in need of support.

“Building on the work of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute we want more organisations to build mental health awareness into their service delivery”

Just a few years ago mental health would have rarely featured in conversations about financial wellbeing – and now the national strategy has identified it as one of just two major cross-cutting priorities. This is a significant step forwards, and we’re looking forward to working with the Money and Pensions Service to help drive the change that’s so vitally needed.

What does this mean in practice?

The strategy identifies five tangible goals for the next ten years:

  1. Two million more children and young people getting a meaningful financial education by 2030
  2. Two million more working age ‘struggling’ and ‘squeezed’ people saving regularly by 2030
  3. Two million fewer people using credit for food and bills by 2030
  4. Two million more people accessing debt advice in 2030
  5. Five million more people understand enough to plan for, and in, later life by 2030.

Making mental health a cross-cutting priority means that the experiences of people with mental health problems must be at the heart of delivering each of these targets. Not only is it the right thing to do, in practice, we would argue that the strategy could hardly be successful without that.

Take debt advice as an example; half of people in problem debt have a mental health problem. Mental health problems which can make it harder to ask for help, and harder to access advice services – whether that’s because of difficulties with motivation, leaving the house, using the telephone or navigating the ‘brain fog’ to remember crucial financial information. Without considering the needs of the 1.5m people in England with both mental health and money problems (and the many more across the rest of the UK), not only do we neglect many of those most in need of help, but reaching that 2m target starts to seem entirely unrealistic.

We will be carrying out a significant piece of research in 2020 looking at the accessibility of debt advice to people with mental health problems, and how this can be improved, to help deliver this important goal.

What’s missing?

One of the strengths of this strategy is that it articulates clearly the compromises that have had to be made, and the goals that were considered and not pursued — from a focus on insurance, to setting targets for levels of savings in later life. At Money and Mental Health we try to be as clear about what we don’t do, as we are about what we do. Sometimes that involves difficult choices, but saying no to one thing allows us to say yes to something else, and makes it clear where partners can most helpfully step in.

One thing notably missing from the Money and Pensions Service strategy is a focus on some of the more systemic drivers of financial difficulty. The strategy is clear that improving individual capabilities is not enough on its own to lead to a financially healthy nation:

“As well as financial education supported by all, we need ethical firms, a compatible regulatory framework, and empowered and capable consumers.”

These are undoubtedly crucial, but we’d add a fifth component for a financially healthy nation: effective government policy. Lobbying to shape national policies is not the role of the Money and Pensions Service, but it’s vital that third sector partners helping to deliver the strategy are clear that it absolutely is ours. For example, we can also help to get people saving regularly and reduce reliance on credit by shaping good policy that supports people to stay in meaningful work or to claim adequate benefits. It’s important that we’re honest that effective policy is part of the bigger picture for delivering this strategy, and that we’re all working towards the same goals, even where we sometimes bring different (but complementary) approaches to the table.

At Money and Mental Health we’re excited about this new strategy and looking forward to exploring all of the ways in which we can help to deliver its ambitious goals, and crucially the changes for people with money and mental health problems that should result.