I have been a financial counsellor for nearly 22 years. My involvement with schools began six years ago where I gave money management courses to year 11 students. These classes were designed to prevent future financial strife, by instilling in students a responsible attitude towards money. Money is something we all enjoy owning, but students need to understand that having money entails a degree of responsibility. This is especially true when borrowing money. Understanding basic principles such as debt and credit can make a world of difference. Whether it's purchasing a car, subscribing to a mobile phone plan or paying for everyday expenses, young people are being exposed to increasing levels of debt.
How did you become a financial counsellor and what sorts of problems were most common when you first started?
I started work as a welfare worker for Christian Community Aid. My administrator encouraged me to participate in a financial counselling course. She believed the best way to assist families through financial distress was to empower them with an understanding of how money worked. Providing assistance in the form of food vouchers and electricity payments certainly helped, but it was no substitute for basic financial literacy. She instead taught families how to control their incomes and expenses through budgeting. A few basic financial habits done regularly can make a real difference. Having these skills ensured families were equipped to make better money choices and take greater control of their lives.
In what area did you work and does location make a big different to the type of work you have done?
I worked in Sydney's Eastwood/Ryde area with outreach centres across Lidcombe/Granville, and in Royal North Shore and Westmead hospitals. People are often surprised to learn families in affluent areas are prone to financial hardship. A higher income doesn't necessarily mean better money management skills. Mortgages, maxed out credit cards, excessive mobile phone bills and legal expenses are problems anyone can be exposed to. Financial problems do not discriminate against a person's postcode. As a counsellor, my aim is to teach people how they can take better control of their finances. A few simple things done on a regular basis, such as budgeting, controlling costs and assessing debt, can significantly improve their situation.
Are there trends that worry you and have been happening in recent times?
My greatest concern is families that don't understand their financial position; knowing how much they earn versus how much they spend. These families tend not to budget, are on the borrowing limit of several credit cards and do not have savings for a rainy day. These factors, combined with poor understanding of how debt works, are leading families to enter agreements where they don't understand the consequences. These include reverse mortgages, loans from day lenders and borrowing arrangements that charge compound interest.
What are the most common problems for people and how do they find you to get help?
Unfortunate circumstances, such as retrenchment, long-term illness and loss of overtime, seem to be the most common issues. Finding the motivation to seek help is a task in itself. Locating a financial counsellor can be a time-consuming process and arranging an appointment can be tedious. I'm a member of the advisory board of the Financial Literacy Foundation, which has created a number of useful tools, including the "Understanding Money" booklet and website.
Do people tend to make the same mistakes repeatedly?
They can, but if given the right information and encouraged to continually use it, people can ensure they stay in much better financial shape. A few simple things, like preparing a budget, keeping it up to date and establishing a savings plan, can make a long-term difference.
What is an example of your best success as a financial counsellor?
Success is difficult to define as a person's situation often varies. It's very satisfying, both personally and professionally, when your efforts can help someone regain control of their life. I once had a client who bought a boat he couldn't afford. Making matters worse, he continued to borrow, using the boat as security to fund further expenses. He discovered one day he could no longer afford the repayments and was on the brink of bankruptcy. After seeing me, we arranged an incredibly tight repayment schedule. For five years he worked two jobs and moved interstate just to make ends meet. After that I didn't hear from him. Then out of the blue he contacted me to say "you would be so proud of me. Today I made the last repayment on the loan and I'm getting married next week". It was one of the most wonderful moments of my career.
How did you meet Financial Literacy Foundation advisory board chairman Paul Clitheroe and become involved with the organisation?
The Financial Literacy Foundation was established by the Australian Government in 2005 to give all Australians the opportunity to better manage their money. Paul and several current independent advisory board members were responsible for creating the proposal that saw its creation. Fostering better financial literacy in the community is an issue I have always been passionate about. I feel very fortunate and privileged to have been invited to join the advisory board and serve with a group of equally passionate and dedicated individuals.
How can we best alleviate financial ignorance?
Bad financial decisions often arise from a lack of information. Education is key to what the foundation is aiming to achieve. By equipping people with the necessary money skills, we can at least empower them to make informed decisions. It doesn't matter what a person's situation is, improved financial knowledge can increase the choices they make and help them get more out of life.
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