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Savings, debt and assets

How factoring assets and debts into our picture of household finances can improve our understanding of how to achieve a more socially just future.

Our mission

JRF’s mission is to support a transition to a more socially just future. We believe 2 crucial steps towards achieving that are putting an end to destitution and ensuring everyone can enjoy the baseline of security needed to live a good life. Assets and debts are central to both of those aims.

Finances beyond income

Living standards and inequality are often discussed in terms of the flow of weekly or annual income. But just as companies are assessed through balance sheets detailing what they own and what they owe, a rounded picture of household finances must also include their accumulated stock of assets and debts.


Families with no assets can be one broken boiler or car breakdown away from crisis and poverty. This is not a fringe group. Recent estimates suggest that around a quarter of the adult population has less than £100 put away in savings. And when people enter poverty, they are likely to fall into debt or arrears on basic household bills or rent. In this way escaping one emergency can bring about the next, as the weight of debt raises the risk of destitution and homelessness.

Families in this position are exposed. Millions of Britons look ahead to retirement with fear, knowing they don’t have enough put aside to live as they would wish to. With dwindling rates of home ownership among the working-age population, fewer people are acquiring a property to fall back on. And too few have sufficient rainy-day funds to get through anything other than a short break in earnings.

A young couple looking through their household bills.
Cost of living

Unable to escape persistent hardship: JRF's cost of living tracker, summer 2023

This new research shows persistently high levels of hardship in the UK, with the numbers of low-income households going without essentials or in arrears not having budged in over a year.

Read the report

Rise of wealth

In the UK the ratio of private wealth to national income has doubled or more over the last 4 decades, creating a society in which what you own is more important than what you earn.

Recent interest rate rises make the future trajectory much more uncertain. But even if they produce a sustained reduction in wealth, it looks set to remain far bigger in relation to income than it ever was in recent history.

The rise of wealth matters for 3 main reasons.

  1. It’s always and everywhere far more unequal than income.
  2. Wealth is intricately bound up with debt (many assets take their value from somebody else’s obligation to repay, and so a society in which a large amount of consumption is funded by assets is one that those without meaningful wealth can’t hope to keep up with).
  3. Debts and wealth appear to be closely connected to mental health (those with minimal savings report far more distress than those with decent savings).

There are questions about how any society marked by such concentrations of wealth at the top end (with all the implications this has for the hoarding of power and opportunity) could ever be socially just. And so JRF looks at the big statistical picture on assets and debt, as well as the broader cultural and policy framework around wealth. They are important things to grapple with as we imagine a different future.