Councils trial digital payment plans to stop households getting into debt

Are notes and coins on the way out?
The schemes aim to promote healthier household finance.

Two of the largest Dutch municipalities have launched an experiment to stop people getting into debt by helping them pay their household bills.

Utrecht council is testing a ‘digital housekeeping book’ on 300 people on low incomes, which allows them to keep track of their fixed costs such as electricity, gas, rent and health insurance in a single app, as well as income sources such as benefits and supplements.

The facility includes a financial buffer of up to €1,200, whereby the council will issue a temporary loan to cover people’s bills where they might otherwise have a shortfall. People on low incomes often struggle with cashflow problems because their benefits are spread throughout the month or arrive a few days after bills are due.

The Hague council has rolled out a scheme that was initially tested on 150 residents to a larger group of 5,000. The city also works with participants and service providers to look at ways of reducing households’ overhead costs.

Nadja Jungmann, a researcher in debt and payment collection at Hogeschool Utrecht, said the initiatives were designed to help householders before they got into serious financial difficulty.

‘In the past organisations only turned up at your door when you were in debt. But by then the problems are already serious. What we need to do is stop people acquiring these debts,’ she told NOS.

She stressed that the measures did not address the underlying problem of the increasingly complex benefits system. ‘The lower your income in the Netherlands, the more different pots your money comes from. People on the lowest incomes are also the most vulnerable people. And we’ve made it very complicated for precisely those people.’

Linda Voortman, the GroenLinks alderman in Utrecht who is overseeing the experiment, said there was a large group of householders in the city who stood to benefit. ‘In Utrecht we have 14,000 to 35,000 households in debt, and a large group on low incomes.’

Junior employment minister Tamara van Ark said she hoped other municipalities would adopt the scheme if it proved to be successful. ‘Studies are being carried out at the moment into how to improve the system of subsidies.

‘Having a single payment date is an interesting option, but because it involves a very large number of payments, that might be hard to arrange. I see offering something like this through financial services and apps as a viable alternative.’

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