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Tightrope Britain – consumers just breaking even

New uSwitch research has found that nearly a quarter (23%) of people just about break even at the end of every month, leaving no contingency money for unforeseen emergencies such as a price rise, boiler breakdown or a hike in fares.

The study also found that a further 7% of consumers actually spend more than they earn, relying on overdrafts (37%), savings (28%) and credit cards (23%) to plug the gap.

Overall, more than half (54%) of Brits are struggling to make ends meet and have been forced to cut back on everyday essentials.

Over a quarter (28%) are spending less on food and a fifth (19%) have reduced their fuel consumption.

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Rising costs likely to impact Christmas spending

While some may have expected things to improve 2012, 14% of consumers say that they are worse off now than they were 12 months ago.

Even for the lucky few (26%) who have managed to avoid cutting back this year, there is little to celebrate. Rising food costs, energy price hikes and fuel and rail fare hikes just around the corner January mean that very few are likely to escape the squeeze.

In fact, three-quarters (75%) of consumers are entering the festive season worried about their financial situation.

For the one in three (34%) who have suffered a pay freeze over the last 12 months, and the further 8% who have actually had their pay cut, balancing the books has been even tougher this year.

To make ends meet, consumers have borrowed an average of £1,950 on top of their mortgages – but only a quarter (26%) have managed to pay it all back.

As well as cutting back on essentials, more than a fifth (22%) have started taking a packed lunch to work, 16% have resorted to flogging their belongings in return for hard cash, and 13% have taken on extra work to boost their income.

Many consumers ‘treading a fine line’

Michael Ossei, personal finance expert at uSwitch, commented: “When it comes to balancing the books, we are treading a fine line. It will only take an unexpected price hike or emergency at home to push us over the edge and into the debt spiral.

“For consumers, everything is shooting up except their income. Unprecedented hikes in essential bills such as food and energy are forming an increasingly large hole in people’s pockets.

“The shock increase in the consumer price index in November will do nothing to help the situation – we are facing a winter of discontent.

“With one in four consumers struggling to repay debt from last year, it’s vital that they look for the best ways to save themselves money. If they do need to borrow money, make sure they take the time to look at the best loan and credit card deals on the market.

“It might seem like a good idea to take the first deal that comes along, but the chances are you’ll end up regretting it and paying more over the long term.”