People with council tax debts have an average of just £7 left to live on at the end of each month, worrying new figures reveal.
Citizens Advice, which analysed financial statements from people across England and Wales, said more than four in 10 of those in arrears have no money left at all.
Nine in 10 people with council tax debt who seek help from Citizens Advice also owe money on other utility bills, most commonly water and energy, it said.
The charity argued that current regulations are forcing these people into sometimes desperate hardship – pushing councils to use the courts to recover debts, which can add legal costs and bailiff fees to the debt.
People can become liable for the full annual bill two weeks after a missed payment.
This means that missing an average council tax payment of £167 in the first month of the financial year can escalate to a debt of more than £2,000 in just nine weeks, Citizens Advice said.
Have you had an issue with your local authority over your council tax bill? Get in touch: [email protected]
This is nearly 300 times the monthly amount available to the average person seeking support from Citizens Advice with council tax arrears.
Last year, the charity helped more than 83,000 people in England with council tax problems.
Dame Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: "Many people who need our help with council tax arrears have no more than a few pounds spare every month to repay their debts.
"An unexpected bill for thousands of pounds, accompanied by legal threats and bailiff action, is terrifying for the person concerned and ineffective for the council trying to recover the debt."
Councillor Richard Watts, chairman of the Local Government Association's resources board, added: "Councils have a duty to their residents to collect taxes so important services, like caring for older and disabled people, protecting children, fixing roads and collecting bins are not affected.
"They strive to recover unpaid tax as sympathetically as possible and to provide support to households at risk of financial exclusion or hardship.
"As the Citizens Advice's report makes clear, this needs to be supported by better guidance and funding.
"Councils would be in favour of it being made easier for them to recover money without having to use bailiffs, and would support the removal of the requirement for the entire annual sum to become payable if an instalment is missed.
"Bailiffs should only ever be used as a last resort by councils.
"Before it gets to that stage, people will have been encouraged to apply for financial support by their council.
"Anyone having trouble paying their council bills should get in touch with their local authority for financial help and advice as soon as possible."
In the UK, campaigners have long been petitioning against the mistreatment of those in council tax debt – especially those considered at risk.
Last year debt charity the National Debtline said it saw a 7% rise in the use of bailiffs to collect council arrears – equivalent to 2.6million a year.
It said 1.4million households have had their addresses shared over outstanding council tax payments – causing them further distress.
A lawyer has also called on the Government to ban laws that prosecute those who fail to pay their bills – with a jail term of three months.
Locking people up for non-payment of council tax is "inhumane, ineffective and undermines public confidence in the justice system", Chris Daw QC said.
In a report for think tank the Social Market Foundation, Daw called for ministers to scrap English laws that allow custodial terms for people who do not pay council tax debts.
Official figures show that between 2011 and 2017, almost 700 people were imprisoned for non-payment of council tax. There were also more than 7,000 suspended committal orders.
Daw said many of those imprisoned were women, including some who have fled domestic violence and abuse.
"Council Tax enforcement has a disproportionate impact on women, including those who may need to flee their home, and enter a refuge, to escape from domestic abuse," he explained.
"This is because women are more likely to have bills in their own names and even moving to a refuge does not remove the legal obligation to pay Council Tax on the home left behind."
Non-payment of council tax is a civil matter, not a crime. Under a law dating back to the scrapping of the Poll Tax in 1993, councils can apply for a "commitment order" where a debtor can be imprisoned.
Unlike for criminal tax fraud, defendants do not have the right to a jury trial or to legal aid.
If you're struggling to cover your bills, support may be available.
This includes cold weather payments to help with energy, discretionary housing payments if you're on Universal Credit and don't have enough to pay your rent, WaterSure to cap your bills if you have a water meter and a reduction in your Council Tax.
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