Unsecured lending to individual Britons, credit cards, hire-purchase and personal loans, hit an eyewatering £216 billion ($409.4bn; €322.7bn) in 2005, accounting for over a third of all new non-mortgage borrowing in Europe.

According to the latest report from researcher Datamonitor, the average Briton owes £3,175 in unsecured debt compared with the European average of £1,558.

The firm's financial services analyst Paul Marsh believes the UK consumer credit market is at saturation point. "[It] is an increasingly difficult place [for lenders] to do business, due to the highly indebted nature of the population. In other European countries consumers are not as indebted and the markets are not as sophisticated."

Financial services companies should be looking to mainland Europe if they want to expand, advises Marsh. But for maximum growth prospects, lenders should be eyeing smaller economies such as Greece and Turkey where unsecured lending - primarily via credit cards - is rising fastest.

New lending in Turkey rose by 52% between 2001-2005, while Greece saw its unsecured borrowing rise by 29% over the same period. Both countries also top the league for the speed with which their consumers' outstanding balances have grown.

In Holland, however, the reverse is true. Unsecured credit as a proportion of all lending is just 5%. The prudent Dutch, when in buying mode, most often prefer to increase their mortgages.

Data sourced from BBC Online; additional content by WARC staff