A SINGLE mum living hand to mouth on a shoestring has spoken of her despair as she struggles to pay £15,000 debts while bringing up a wayward teenager and his brother.
The 39-year-old, from Bewdley, is head of one of 3,521 Wyre Forest families now said to be living in "problem debt".
It is a trap that the Children's Society and StepChange Debt Charity say a total of 6,257 Wyre Forest children find themselves in, sometimes going without food, clothing or heating.
The mum-of-two, who does not wish to be identified, told how she had, at times, only pasta and a tin of baked beans to feed her sons, aged 16 and nine.
She had also resorted to food banks after eating their own cupboard dry of tins stockpiled during better times.
"I feel so down and lost," said the mother, whose financial problems stacked up after splitting from her partner and having to give up work because her older son was banned from school and in trouble with the police.
"Instead of asking for help early on I buried my head in the sand. My priority was to try and sort out my son and I let everything else drift."
The family lives in a three-bedroomed "shared ownership" semi, for which her ex partner pays the £500 a month mortgage and she gets £300 housing benefit for the rent. She ran up £6,000 debts on her credit card buying groceries and other items.
Then she landed herself with having to repay £3,500 in tax credits, to which she was entitled but which she should not have claimed after failing to fill in the renewal paperwork. She owes £2,300 in rent arrears and estimates her total debt at £15,000.
For a time she and the boys were living on £134 a month child benefit and £142 a fortnight employment support allowance.
Finally, the Department of Work and Pensions put her in touch with its EOS service, which is now helping her to negotiate repayment of her debts.
Wyre Forest Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) is also supporting her to set up direct debits and get on top of her debts.
"The CAB has put together a letter for me to see if my tax credits debt can be reconsidered," said the mother.
She now receives £220 a month in benefits, although her outgoings are £230.
"Some weeks I still have to decide whether to not pay a bill or go without food," she said. "But I'm starting to be optimistic that there is light at the end of the tunnel."
The recent Children's Society and StepChange Debt Charity survey found that Wyre Forest has the largest family debt problem in Worcestershire.
Wyre Forest CAB warns that, although the Government has made good progress on the economy, with more people in work, wage growth is "negligible".
CAB manager Kate Bennett said: “In the last four months, 247 families came to Wyre Forest CAB about debt issues and the self-employed are more likely to become bankrupt, which is heartbreaking to have to deal with.
“As well as the threat of increasing interest rates, families will have problems with energy bills as we approach winter, just as energy companies are making increased profits thanks to the recent falls in wholesale prices and their failure to pass them on to consumers."
"More than 400 families have come to us about benefit problems and how they will manage we do not know."