Please tell us about your background.
When you are born and raised on a farm as I was you have dirt in your shoes from a young age and once you’ve got dirt in your shoes its really difficult to get it out. Apart from a few years in my twenties, home has always been my farm. It was an upbringing I was keen to replicate with my own three daughters.
As a library technician I worked in public libraries, sometimes driving a large bookmobile. Later I added training quals and a decommissioned bookmobile was transformed into a computer-learning centre with desks and laptops in the back where basic computer skills were taught to indigenous and newly arrived refugees in an unthreatening space. My handsome printer husband was keen to be his own boss so we bought a printing business. I have always done the books for our business while pursuing my own career path.
What motivated you to pursue financial counselling?
While teaching in the training van it became evident that those I was trying to help would benefit from financial literacy. I came across a course called Financial Counselling, completed the diploma then used the points as credits towards a degree in Social Science/Welfare.
By working in various fields as a financial counsellor I’ve built valuable, strong, supportive networks across a wide genre. Those roles have been: solo generalist financial counsellor (FC) in a busy welfare agency where I saw far too many clients, burnt out and got compassion fatigue; FC for students at a university; Telephone FC at MoneyHelp (now National Debt Helpline); Financial Literacy educator; Rural FC visiting farmers from broad acre crops in the Riverina to dairy farms in the Upper Murray talking issues from debt management to succession plans; Outreach FC, and two current roles: Small Business Bushfire Financial Counsellor and Older Person’s Financial Counsellor.
What are the unique aspects of your role or the area you work in?
It felt important to help however I could after the recent devastating fires. I evacuated from our farm and the fire-fighter printer husband was away for many days and nights with the CFA, so I do relate. When Fiona [Guthrie] asked if I would help establish a new telephone service to assist small businesses in bushfire recovery I accepted the challenge. It happened quickly; treasury offered funds on the proviso that the service was up and running within the month. There was so much to organise.
Now we have a full team of specially trained FCs and while we have capacity, answer calls from small business affected by COVID-19 not only bushfire. We talk through what grants, assistances or loans they may be eligible for and debt problems. Business owners are passionate about their livelihood; it consumes their total being. Their distress is clearly audible over the phone, but callers are always left with something. Working on this project with the team at Financial Counselling Australia (FCA) has been invigorating.
I also have a part-time role as Older Person’s FC at Royal Melbourne Hospital. This is the first time an FC has been directly employed by a hospital. Melbourne Health hope to write a paper on this work with a vision towards financial counsellors becoming employed more regularly in hospitals. There are two parts to this job: educating staff about what a financial counsellor does, and assisting older people in their home who have been identified as victims of financial abuse.
What has been your proudest achievement to date?
As an FC: Successfully advocating for positive changes that assist the masses. I’ve long been advocating for reform of payday lending and rent-to-buy services after witnessing widespread harm they cause in my community. I took time off from work to volunteer with independent MP Cathy McGowan and met with various other MPs. With regard to passing the Small Amount Credit Contract (SACC) bill, Cathy said we “kicked a goal along the way to winning the match”.
That’s definitely been a marathon and continues. I still follow this closely and have spoken at two senate hearings. I do believe it will pass, hopefully without too many amendments. Change isn’t always so onerous to achieve, e.g. advocating for policy change with your local credit union to benefit the vulnerable. Getting to know your local leaders, and ensuring they know you and what you do is a great way to bring about change. These people will come to you for opinions when they know what you have to offer.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the financial counselling sector?
It’s taken two unmatched disasters this year to bring about industry funding. From this arises the challenge of sourcing and adequately training new staff to execute our work. Then support, recognition and respect for financial counsellors is needed.
FCVic has made sound progress towards educating agency managers about our needs. Hopefully this advocacy continues and results in supportive, respectful agencies that rightfully acknowledge the true value of our work and knowledge base. Our sector can ill afford to lose quality, experienced members.
What has been the most valuable resource or advice you’ve received?
Garry Rothman told me once early on: “Remember, if you can’t help them, don’t harm them”.
The Hume Region Network of FCVic has always been a terrific support and resource for information sharing.
What book are you reading at the moment?
Adele Ferguson’s Banking Bad. I remember Adele announcing at an earlier conference the need for a Banking Royal Commission. It was a privilege to hear her again at the FCVic conference in 2019 speaking about her book written on that topic. My eldest daughter is a librarian and with my own library background we are never short of a good read in our home.
What is your favourite app?
Words with Friends. Anyone up for a challenge? I’m sandylea.