Free help to sort out your debts

If your unpaid bills are getting out of control, or you just want help to manage your money, then free help is available from a financial counsellor.

Not to be confused with a financial adviser, Nel Staite has been helping people sort out their finances in Sunbury for the past 18 months. The city’s only publicly-funded financial counsellor is currently helping 27 clients get on top of their debts. There’s a waiting list, but urgent cases get priority.

Staite, who is employed by Sunbury and Cobaw Community Health, is at pains to point out that nobody is judged because their financial heads are not above water. After all, statistics tell us that most bill payers are two pay-packets away from falling behind.

Right now, her clients are stressed due to missed mortgage payments, loss of income due to losing their job, reduced hours at work, or an accident keeping them off work.

“Sometimes looking after a family member can prevent people going to work, family violence has a huge impact, then there’s the knock-on effect of covid…,” says Staite.

Every circumstance is different, but the end result is the same. Loans, rent, rates, insurance, and credit cards go unpaid, and unless an arrangement is brokered quickly late payment fees, penalties, and legal action can follow. It can snowball quickly.

Staite says covid is still causing financial problems for people she terms ‘the working poor’ – people who are fully employed, perhaps even working overtime, but who still can’t make ends meet due to higher interest rates and cost-of-living pressures.

“I’m seeing clients now who have never been concerned about their finances before,” she says. “But they were thrust into a space where they could not afford to pay their bills.

“The financial support that was put in place [during lockdowns] was pretty good, but they lasted only a short time.

“As soon as they came out of that period they were expected to maintain their normal repayments on top of paying back any arrears. That has had a big impact on a lot of people who had never navigated the welfare system before.”

Staite says most of her clients have no idea what support is available, not just in terms of financial counselling services but support for food and utility arrears.

She’s is keen to point out that cutting out what could be called ‘nice-to-haves’ may not always be the answer. Remove every pleasure from life, and the rot can set in quickly.

“It’s not so much about what you spend money on, and what you could live without,” she says. “It is about being educated about what is available. And being educated about spending habits.

“Financial counsellors offer a non-judgemental service, so I am never going to tell someone how they should spend their money. Some might think a client should cancel their gym membership, but going to the gym may be essential to their mental health.

“Our first question is, can you increase your income? Then, can you take on a renter, or get more hours at work?”

Staite says helping clients identify their daily spending is a good exercise.

“We review where every cent is spent,” she says. “For example, are they getting value for money on their car insurance, have they got the best mobile phone deal…We investigate to see if they can get the things that are important to them at a cheaper price.

“It’s also my job to make sure clients are aware of all the help available to them, to work out where savings can be made. Then I support them in the choices they make.”

Few people meet Staite just once, most return for ongoing help and support – particularly those facing significant arrears. Some of the people Staite helps are facing debts of $10,000 or more, some have warrants for their arrest. 

“Sometimes they haven’t even incurred the debt, or there’s a debt they weren’t aware of, and then a summons to appear in court arrives,” says Staite.

The benefit of seeing a financial counsellor is that someone such as Staite, one of many financial counsellors across Melbourne, knows about credit laws, what creditors can and can’t do when chasing a debt, and has intimate knowledge of the practical help available.

Above all, Staite says anyone can find themselves in financial strife, there’s nothing to be ashamed about in asking for help, and that with careful money management and focus, debts can be settled.

Her key points are that financial counsellors offer a free, confidential, and non-judgemental service to people who are experiencing financial difficulty and/or are having issues with debt.

  1. You do not need to be in debt to access help
  2. If you are in debt there are laws that govern what a creditor/debt collector can and can’t do
  3. Eligibility to see a financial counsellor is not based on your income

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