My Insta-Worthy Lifestyle Got Me Into £27,000 Debt

Photographed by Serena Brown
FOMO – the "fear of missing out" – has gripped millennials and Generation Z since the rise of Instagram, and it’s difficult to avoid it. Our feeds are constantly populated with perfectly curated stories depicting expensive holidays and luxury cars or impeccable outfits paired with the latest designer handbags. Social media has shifted from a form of communication with our friends to become a platform for flaunting wealth, power and status. Such social pressure lures us in, and often tempts us to spend beyond our means just to keep up.
The UK has a consumer debt crisis and it is young people – aged between 18 and 34 – who are most vulnerable. A recent study by Credit Karma found that Gen Zers and millennials collectively spend £400 a month imitating Instagram stars, with seven in 10 going into debt as a result. Twenty-five percent say their debt is hindering long-term financial goals such as owning a house, while 31% can’t afford everyday essentials and 36% say it’s impacting their savings.
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Gen Zers and millennials collectively spend £400 a month imitating Instagram stars, with seven in 10 going into debt as a result.

Laura* told Refinery29 that her spending spiralled out of control when she was planning her wedding in 2017. The 30-year-old mother would scroll through social media websites for inspiration, only to fall victim to influencer marketing selling her the "perfect wedding". After booking wedding photographers, florists and dressmakers, Laura realised she had spent upward of £20,000 on her big day – 80% of her £25k salary at the time.
"I had spent a lot of time trawling Pinterest and social media for wedding inspiration, and I followed all of our suppliers, so it would give me a buzz if they featured our wedding on their pages." She now calls it a "wedding tax" that she's still paying off.
"I’d never been good or sensible with money up to that point, but that was the first time I had a lot of cash. If I look back at any kind of tracking I have now, you can see the level of debt go up from £5 to £25,000 very quickly in 2017. It was very easy to fall into that trap: once you’ve spent on one thing, something else comes up."
Things got worse for the couple when they moved into a larger property to suit their family needs in early 2018, but were faced with high rental costs. Laura got pregnant with her second child and went on maternity leave.
During this time, she felt pressured to keep up with mummy influencers who had made a career out of their blogging. She would scroll through pictures of interiors on Instagram to find inspiration to improve her home, and found herself purchasing homewares such as rugs, furniture and cushions – some costing up to £200 each.
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"There was a part of me that liked the idea of that lifestyle. There was an element of aesthetically wanting to live up to Instagram. I really fell into the trap of feeling like our house wasn’t perfect. I would try to recreate Instagram accounts in any way that I could. I couldn’t afford to do the big kitchen renovation, but I would buy homewares and baby clothes – on and off the baby – and post them online, as well as new outfits."

I really fell into the trap of feeling like our house wasn't perfect. I would try to recreate Instagram accounts in any way that I could.

Laura
The pressure to keep up with the Joneses, she adds, is similar to having a shopping addiction which she admits she still feels sometimes now.
"Most of us are aware that it’s very superficial and that adds to the guilt that we feel afterwards. It’s that cyclical thing of feeling something building up, whether it’s a desire for a product or a space on your mantlepiece, then you’re like, Oh god, I need to get it, then it arrives, you put it there and then the buzz is over."
With rent payments swallowing most of her household income, Laura and her husband took out multiple credit cards over a couple of years to keep their family afloat.
"I didn’t have much of a foot on the career ladder and I wasn’t earning well, nor was my husband. So I naively went into that not knowing about the implications of childcare costs, and he went through a couple of job changes that were financially hard on us."
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Laura's PayPal was linked to several credit cards, making it easier for her to spend money as she browsed online. "It didn't really register that that was what I was doing. One thumb-print and you're off."
The couple's 0% interest periods on their credit cards soon ran out and as the debt grew, it eventually got too much. In March this year, they decided to face up to it, admitting they had reached breaking point.
"Things had been difficult for a while. March had been a very difficult month for us financially, and we had already been bailed out by our parents and friends during our 20s, but it got to a point where I sat down, quite cross with myself, and said, You need to face up to this because this is your fault."

It's very difficult not to feel very alone and for a long time I felt like the only person who made mistakes.

lAURA
In the same month, Laura set up MyFrugalYear, an Instagram account where she wrote a brutally honest bio – "The first step towards change...is admitting you have a problem" – and now continues to speak candidly about debt and her situation. Laura credits the account for enabling her not only to connect with others who are in the same boat but also to communicate her situation to her friends and family.
"It's very difficult not to feel very alone and for a long time I felt like the only person who made mistakes," she said.
Her honesty, coupled with her encouraging and informative posts, has gained her a loyal following of nearly 30k at the time of writing.
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Laura and her husband have just hit sub £20k credit card debt, down from £25k in eight months, and she shared the news with her followers.
"For some people that seems incredibly quick, for others it seems like 'slowly chipping away'. I could be a little further along if we’d given up all of life’s pleasures, but quality of life is important to me as well."
This is something she hopes to get across in her new book, titled Real Life Money: How To Find Financial Freedom When You've Got Other Sh*t To Worry About, which is out in May next year.
"One of the big themes that the book aims to tackle is comparison and how toxic it can be. Social media is the ultimate comparison tool, but we need to remind ourselves that what we see is nowhere near the whole picture – the people posting about their luxury holidays and renovations might also be experiencing debt for all we know."
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UNDER £20K 🙌🏻 I dithered about posting this for some reason - I don’t know if it’s because I’m scared I’ll backslide or for some other reason but here goes - WE ARE UNDER £20K, people! Slightly later than I’d hoped we’d get here, but I knew that the decision to go self-employed when I did might affect this slightly, and I am still so, so pleased. I’m not sure why, but I felt like this would never happen. The slog has been real over the last couple of months, and unexpected expenses etc have made things feel unbearably slow at times. Before I managed this mindset change, that would have been the point at which I would have given up. The sharper-eyed amongst you will notice that I have also cleared two balances - the Aqua card was a teeny six month balance transfer that I managed to do, but the Next account is a big deal for me. For years, it was my go-to for buying everything I could, which got easier as Next added more brands to their website. I think it was something about how seamless it was, how non-confronting it was, how it didn’t feel like real debt... which is ridiculous really considering the astronomical interest rate. But now it’s gone, and I can focus on my Amex. My approach at the moment is minimum repayments on my two interest-free cards (Santander & HSBC) and then fixed payments on the rest, but weighted to American Express as I really want to be rid of that card. Thank you so much for the support, advice, conversation and confidence that you’ve given me over the last 8 months - I really couldn’t have done this without it.

A post shared by My Frugal Year (@myfrugalyear) on

It's been a learning curve, but spending money on her wedding is not something Laura regrets. "I don't want to resent my wedding: it's done and I'm happy to be married to my husband. I don't want our debt to taint our happy memories. But I admit that I did get swept up in a very superficial world and I started to care too much about what things looked like, or how many likes a post got on Instagram. I wish I had known how much stress the extra debt would cause."
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Laura's experience is not uncommon. A slew of young women have come forward recently to admit that they have spiralled into debt because they felt pressured by their peers on social media.
There are many reasons why young people can fall into debt, ranging from income shocks, high rent and austerity to unforeseen emergencies and unemployment. Some debt can be related to overspending or bad money management.

You're probably doing absolutely fine as you are, even if you don't have a feature wall in your house.

Laura
According to Sue Anderson, head of media at StepChange debt charity, 14% of new StepChange clients were under 26 and two thirds were under 40 in the first half of 2019. She said the charity was becoming concerned that young people are increasingly vulnerable to problem debt.
"Young people tend to have less secure incomes, are more likely to rent and can often have higher living costs, all of which can contribute to greater risks of debt problems," Anderson said. "Lenders and creditors must be aware of this and exercise caution when selling products that can cause debt."
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"Anyone worried about debt can get advice from StepChange online 24/7 if they feel they are at risk of problem debt."
If you are finding yourself unable to manage your debt, the charity says it may only take a few steps to get yourself back on track. These include making a list of your priority bills, creating a budget and allocating some of your disposable income to pay off an amount of debt each month, and looking for extra income or opting for cheaper travel or supermarkets. If this is still a struggle, the charity recommends speaking to a debt adviser to find the best plan for you.
Laura highlights her pitfalls and admits that her debt was the result of her naivety and envy of others being gifted things and landing sponsored partnerships with brands, but adds that young women should be wary of following influencers. "I scroll back through it and it's all just stuff. As much as I was comparing myself to everyone else and feeling inadequate, it wasn't an accurate depiction of me. Influencer lifestyles are not achievable."
Her advice? "We need to remind ourselves that what we see is nowhere near the whole picture. I'd advise treating influencer lifestyles as being akin to celebrity ones – nice to look at, but not something everyone should aspire to. You're probably doing absolutely fine as you are, even if you don't have a feature wall in your house."
Real Life Money: How To Find Financial Freedom When You’ve Got Other Sh*t To Worry About by MyFrugalYear is out in May 2020.
*Not her real name.
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