Jacqueline Goodwin became a widow with two babies at age 25 and can attest to how quickly life can change.
Aside from her grief and personal trauma, the financial strain left her equally devastated.
“When you come to this fork in the road where you have no money to eat — we need to get rid of the stigma — from the point of view like this can really happen to anybody,” she said.
“By the time I had started to get on my emotional feet, my finances were completely caving in because I had borrowed money.
People in financial distress, might think an accountant does the same thing as a financial planner or a financial counsellor – but their services are quite different.
Just like specialists in medicine, those working in finance also have different areas of expertise.
Financial counsellors should not charge for their services, and through referrals from the National Debt Helpline (NDH), people struggling to get out of debt can use their services.
Ms Goodwin faced an uncertain future when her husband, Queensland Police Constable Mark Goodwin, was killed while on duty in 1991.
“I got married to a wonderful police officer who kind of started to rescue me,” she said.
“He was the first person who ever gave me unconditional love and every time I say that, I start tearing up.
“Pandora’s box was opened. I already had postnatal depression — my eldest child was 14 months and my youngest was only just three months old when Mark was killed.
“I’m trying to emerge out of this and I’m trying to get some kind of footing.
“I would get jobs that I couldn’t stay in and then I was losing my children.
“Then self-esteem — what’s that? You don’t even understand where the boundary of you starts and ends.”
Domestic violence contributed to dire financial situation
After the trauma of losing her husband, Ms Goodwin had other relationships that involved domestic violence.
Ms Goodwin said friends were providing her with food because she could not afford to pay for groceries and her mortgage.
“I had two credit cards and they had been birthed out of a domestic violence [situation],” she said.
“I’m in absolute dire straits. The most important thing to me is to pay my mortgage and pay my health insurance.”
She said she kept her bank aware of her financial situation and was given a two-month reprieve on her mortgage and referred to a free financial counsellor.
“I’m like ‘oh my God, thank you so much’ and I’m crying, seriously crying,” she said.
“[But] I was thinking when they told me to go to the community centre, I was like ‘a community centre — what are they going to do?'”
That’s where Ms Goodwin met Jeffrey Chong — the Redland Community Centre’s financial counsellor.
“Jeff always makes it like I can always ring him and he just makes it really simple for me.
“He’s helped me to get over a lot of fear — he puts everything in a nice black and white way. “
She said the expertise of a financial counsellor like Mr Chong helped enormously when dealing with banks and credit providers.
“I’ve seen him have a go at people who are lending money to people who have hardly any ability to even keep their dog fed, let alone keep petrol in a car,” she said.
“He definitely is there to help remind the lender [of their responsibilities].”
Ms Goodwin said there needed to be more promotion about the availability of financial counselling as a free service.
“I also think our society is going to have higher rates of suicide if we do not make this a more obvious service,” she said.
Ms Goodwin said her financial journey was now on a stronger path thanks to Mr Chong and she had a renewed purpose in life.
“I’m not scared of anything … Jeff used his pen and his heart and lassoed [my financial situation]. He is the most amazing guy,” Ms Goodwin said.
Tens of thousands seek financial counselling each year
Financial Counselling Australia (FCA) — the not-for-profit association that oversees the profession — said there were about 800 financial counsellors working across the country for tens of thousands of people who seek financial counselling every year.
However, FCA chief executive Fiona Guthrie said there were “a lot of for-profit businesses who try and trade off our good name”.
“A lot of people are doing Google searches and so on, and unfortunately the paid ads come up first, so people think they might be doing the right thing and they can be easily misled — that’s very, very frustrating.
“The type of calls we’re getting are a lot related to cost of living — people not being able to pay for essentials, so not just debt — the debt would be on top of that.”
Allison Wicks, CEO of Redland Community Centre, east of Brisbane, said for-profit organisations that offered similar services should not call it financial counselling and may be using different terms.
“You do not need to pay to have a budget put in place, and for financial counselling advocacy that you may need to sort through those bills that you’ve got, [and] advocate to collection agencies.”
Ms Wicks said any financial counsellor who was a member of the FCA should not charge a fee.
“Financial counselling — it’s free, it’s independent — it’s similar to being a JP,” Ms Wicks said.
“I think that people perceive that when a service is free, it doesn’t hold the same level of skill, credibility.
“That is totally and utterly incorrect when it comes to financial counselling — because it is quite a qualification to achieve.”
National Debt Helpline referral
Ms Wicks said people could access financial counselling via the National Debt Helpline and from there they were referred to agencies for more help.
When the COVID pandemic hit, Ms Wicks said 25 per cent of her centre’s clients were new.
“In most cases, one or other of these — high petrol costs, increase in interest rates, increase in energy, a housing crisis — one of those would be enough to cause major ripples, like a butterfly effect, through the community — we’ve got the whole box and dice,” Ms Wicks said.
She said her centre was seeing more people becoming very stressed amid Australia’s economic situation.
Ms Wicks said the main role of financial counsellors was to advocate and negotiate.
“They are the world’s best negotiators for arrangements for people in financial hardship and that’s very much dependent on that particular person’s set of individual circumstances,” she said.
“By the time it gets to a collection agency, everyone fears that it’s gone too far and end up in court.
“The letters that they craft as part of that advocacy to banks — it’s all really well managed and produces some outstanding results — literally millions of dollars has been lifted from people as a financial burden – and you can imagine the stress that also lifts.”
Financial counsellors ‘completely impartial’
FCA financial counsellor Deb Shroot said her clients were provided with different options rather than told what to do.
“What financial counsellors do is present all the pros and cons of each of those options so that the client can make an informed decision,” Ms Shroot said.
“I think that’s really, really important to know and we’re completely impartial.
“The way I explain the difference is that financial planners help people who’ve got money to invest. Financial counsellors help people who are struggling with debt.”
Many people are now ‘self-helping’
The National Debt Helpline service was expanded to offer a national chat service on its website from July 1 and a small business debt helpline was also available.
Ms Shroot said the FCA found many people were now “self-helping”.
“Between the [NDH] website and a bit of guidance from the chat, a lot of people are able to go out and do the groundwork themselves, whereas previously a higher percentage of people who were contacting us required the personal advocacy as well,” she said.
Ms Shroot said there was often shame for people who found they had to seek help about their financial situation.
“Some people see having debt or not being able to make payments or not being able to provide for their family … as quite shameful,” Ms Shroot said.
“It might take someone several attempts to actually get the help that they need.”