South Africa’s middle class is in serious trouble right now

 ·11 May 2022

The latest debt index from DebtBusters shows that middle-class South Africans are falling further into debt as a six-year decline in disposable income and a higher debt burden have contributed to the financial challenges many South Africans are facing.

Data from the debt management company shows that for those taking home more than R20,000 per month the total debt to annual net income ratio has spiralled to 150%.

The group said that its quarterly debt report is compiled from data provided by clients who have applied for debt counselling. The analysis found that two years after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, nominal income declined marginally.

But, when the effect of cumulative inflation over the past six years is considered, in real terms South Africans have 31% less disposable income.

According to Benay Sager, head of DebtBusters, consumers are making up the shortfall in real income by borrowing. Unsecured debt levels are 20% higher than in 2016 and for those taking home more than R20,000 a month, unsecured debt has increased by 54%, which is unsustainably high.

The consequence of this higher debt burden is that consumers need to spend about 62% of their take-home pay to service their debt.

More alarming is that for the top two income bands’ debt-to-income ratios are at their highest levels in the past six years. For those taking home more than R10,000 per month.

Sager said that although the average loan size has increased by 27% over the six years, the number of debt obligations has declined by 18%, indicating that consumers have more debt per credit agreement – though they are seeking help sooner.

He said that this is particularly important in an environment where both interest rates and inflation are increasing.

“In these circumstances, consumers need to do everything possible to reduce the cost of credit and protect their assets. For those unable to do so without help, debt counselling is the best option available.”

In Q1 2022, there was increased demand from consumers for debt counselling, with inquiries up by 32% compared to the same period last year.

Many consumers are seeking help proactively as they are feeling the impact of the end of 2020 payment holidays, after-effects of several nationwide lockdowns and diminished ability to borrow, Sager said.

He pointed to a noticeable increase in men applying for debt counselling. In Q1 2022, 57% of new applicants were male compared to 48% in the same period in 2016.

Read: What South Africans spend on groceries, rent, and other items each month – based on what they earn

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