Maria Good says helping people who are struggling to pay bills is the most satisfying work she’s ever done. Her long career in corporate financial regulation with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission is excellent experience for her work in retirement as a volunteer counsellor for clients of Sydney Community Services and Christian Community Aid.
Financial counselling helps people identify their problems, presents them with options and the client chooses what course to take. Counsellors also help people with appeals when they are denied public housing or Centrelink benefits. In 12 years’ volunteering her expertise, Maria has helped countless people who have found themselves in reduced circumstances and unable to cope.
“My focus is to advocate for clients, to empower them and educate them,” says Maria whose achievements were recognised last year when she was awarded the Jan Pentland Prize for achievements which improve the financial or consumer rights of disadvantaged people.
“I think it was my strong advocacy on behalf of clients which was being awarded,” says Maria, who was completely surprised by the honour. “I do go the extra mile when clients have been treated harshly or unfairly.”
And that happens often. One client, the victim of a scammer to the tune of $5,000, was simply being ignored by one of the ‘big four’ banks.
“This client didn’t know what to do; the bank wouldn’t deal with her. She told me she ‘didn’t want to be a bother’. I dealt with the bank instead and found they had sent her problem to the scam team – even though all banks now have customer advocates to handle these matters. So I took it to the CEO’s office and they reimbursed her account.
“Creditors are much more demanding with clients. But when I am their advocate, creditors call me instead … and they are much more reasonable and polite. An advocate empowers clients because it means they are not being spoken to disrespectfully.”
Maria also empowers her clients by showing them it’s possible to negotiate successfully – including with utilities companies, social housing managers, banks and other creditors. She can also introduce clients to helpful State Government programs such as energy assistance vouchers and Work Development Orders which apply to apply to debts from parking fines or traffic offences.
“Financial counsellors negotiate with creditors. If people are in no position to repay, the debts could be written off or repaid slowly in small interest-free repayments.”
Maria also educates clients about identifying essential versus discretionary spending, and letting them decide what they can change.
One of Maria’s clients, a mother of several children came to SCS ‘pantry’ for food and Hunters Hill staff thought she might need Maria’s insights. The woman was renting privately and the property was to be knocked down within months. Maria sought help from the local member for State Government, whose office was extremely helpful. The result is the client, who had faced the prospect of being homeless, now has access to a secure home for her family. Next, Maria tackled her debts.
“This lady is obviously very frugal and prioritises feeding her children. I suggested she’d benefit from ‘Work Development Orders’, where people with parking or traffic fines can get these paid in return for positive action they’re taking including seeing a financial counsellor or volunteering with the community – the idea is people ‘work off’ debts. We’re about to work on a utilities payment plan, and she can also use Energy Accounts Payment Assistance vouchers which help people undergoing hardship with utilities bills so they can stay connected.”
Maria is happiest when clients stop coming to her; it means the education component of her work is succeeding. Unlike many services, financial counsellors don’t want repeat business!
Find out more about Sydney Community Services’ Hardship Assistance and Financial Counselling here.
or phone us on 9247 6425