We sat down with Sarah, a financial counsellor from the National Debt Helpline, to discuss how people have been using the service during the coronavirus.
What have been the general themes from callers?
We get a complete mixture of calls. There’s a whole range of issues but primarily people who, due to COVID-19, have had a reduction in their household income, and as a result they are starting to fall behind not just in their day-to-day bills, but in bigger things as well like mortgages and car loans.
We've definitely had a lot of new people calling us for the first time and feeling pretty anxious and not really knowing what to expect and feeling sort of quite embarrassed and almost apologising in some cases for needing to call. They say things like, ‘I know there are other people worse off than me’.
I think for people who have been working and lost their income, it’s a really big issue, because they’ve never had to rely on welfare. They've always worked and been self-sufficient, and to suddenly find themselves in that situation is just a massive shock.
Has the volume of calls to the National Debt Helpline increased during COVID-19?
Interestingly, the number of calls has actually gone down, but we're sort of feeling that this is the calm before the storm because – up to now – the government and the banks have been generous with hardship assistance.
People have been able to get extra payments through Centrelink, so there's a bit of an artificial buffer at the moment. Once those things start being stripped back in September, that's when we're expecting to see the real impact of what people are dealing with.
How have you found the experience of providing financial advice from home?
I think the working from home has been much harder than I imagined it would be. For me personally, working as a financial counsellor, it's very much as a team and there's a lot of informal interaction in our team, which is very supportive.
Losing this support has been quite challenging for a lot of us, and it sort of struck me that this job is much better suited to working in an office environment where you're part of a team and you've got that cohort around you.
We’ve had to be creative in finding other ways to support each other. It’s definitely still been happening, it’s just done differently.
What coping strategies have you used to manage your mental health?
I love reading so I just make sure that I always have a stack of books. I don't like to run out of books to read and I definitely use fiction as a form of escapism.
I’ve tried to limit the amount of time that I spend reading or watching the news and I've also been making a point of going out for walks, either at lunchtime or after work, so I get a change of scenery.
What advice would you give to someone who is worried about reaching out for financial advice?
I’d encourage people to not be afraid to contact a financial counsellor if they’re stressing about their debts and things like that because there's lots of help available. We are human as well and it's a very holistic, non-judgmental service.
We are all going through this and in different ways, so we're well placed to support people with what they're going through. There's no stigma or shame in asking for help.
Call the National Debt Helpline on 1800 007 007 for free and confidential advice from professional financial counsellors. The helpline is open from 9.30 am to 4.30 pm, Monday to Friday.