Nick Georgiou has a background in banking, but had always been keen on social welfare. He now combines the two in his work with Wagga Family Support Services.
Nick, what is your role?
I’m a financial counsellor. I typically work with people who are in some sort of situation where there is increased stress due to their financial situation.
It’s typically low income earners, but not all the time. Financial stress can come out on its own. There might be a run of bad luck or some set of circumstances that have arisen, but also financial stress can come from people having a poor financial literacy from the start.
There could be something that has happened to their physical or mental health that is causing them issues, and they have perhaps lost track of what is happening financially because they have bigger issues to deal with, or sometimes we see people who are in family or domestic violence situations where there might be impact on their work or their ability to work, or there might be unexpected expenses.
There’s a whole raft of different reasons someone could be in a financially stressful situation.
What clues should people be looking for as to when they need help?
Because money is such a big part of life, financial stress can affect relationships. People might notice they’re arguing more with others about money, they might have difficulty sleeping, they might be feeling angry or fearful or withdrawing from others.
It’s important, I think, to realise there are these physical and mental health stresses and people should just stop and ask themselves “is this about the money situation” and if it is, we can help identify what the options are to deal with them.
Our role is not to sit down with someone and say “you must do this and this and this with your money”. Our role is to sit next to them and say “let’s get a clear picture of what your financial situation looks like.”
We look at what’s in people’s super, their car and any property they've got, and out of all of that, we might be able to say ‘here’s option A, B and C, and here’s the pros and cons of all of that’.
It’s up to them to decide what option to go with. So maybe I’d go with option A if it was me, but option B is going to be better for them.
If I sit down and speak to someone for an hour, I’m not going to get their full story. I might get a lot of their story, but I’m not going to get all of it. So they might have different family or community responsibilities that they need to address.
How hard is it for people to actually say they need help?
A lot of the time when we hear from people they are in crisis mode and if they are, they may not be able to see as clearly as if they were on a preventative footing.
We get a lot of people who might call us off their own bat, but we might also get people referred to us by other support agencies or family. We are free and everything is confidential.
What should people look for as a sign they need some help?
If they have got things that are building up. Typically, I see a lot of stress around utility bills. If someone is not going to be able to meet their electricity payment for this quarter, it will carry over to the next quarter, and then the next quarter.
People will come in and say they’ve been struggling for a while, but the thing that really rang the alarm bells was an electricity bill of $2500 or a massive gas bill, or rates arrears.
Once we get someone with a number of debts, we will prioritise them. Mortgage arrears or rates arrears, anything that is linked to their house, is a priority. Anything that is high interest, like credit cards, too.
We look at statements and, for example, if there are a lot of cash advances, we will ask whether there is an issue with gambling or a drug issue going on, and we can have a pretty honest conversation about that in a safe, non-judgmental space.
We are primarily financial counsellors, but we are still counsellors and we like to take that holistic view of someone and see if they need support from another service. We can make other referrals to make sure all their other issues are being addressed.
The money stuff might just be symptomatic of something else that is going on.
Even with gambling, you’re never just talking about gambling. It’s usually about loss, grief, trauma, loneliness, something like that.
Any tips for people who are recognising they might be starting to have some issues?
One of the cornerstones of what we do is just helping people manage their money better. They key thing is putting together a budget, whether it’s a fortnightly budget or a full 12-month budget, something like that is really good to help people focus on what they need to worry about.
Rather than worrying about everything money related, let’s put together a budget so we can see what expenses you’ve got, what your income can cover and what the gap is and whether there is stuff we can take out, just to help you cover those expenses.
I find a lot of people walk out of here after doing a simple budget thinking ‘OK, it’s not that bad, I only need to reduce my spending a little bit in this regard’ or ‘maybe I can pick up a little bit of extra work’.
Are you finding more people are having trouble with basic household bills?
Absolutely. We have seen that a lot incomes are remaining the same, but the cost of living is rising.
When you’re looking at budgets day in and day out, you can see that if you turn up the heat on one expense, then it’s got to come from somewhere else when you’re talking about a person with fixed income.