Financial counsellor Greg says it’s never been so busy, with record numbers of older Australians in debt distress. (ABC News: David Taylor)
Financial helpline counsellors are at “capacity” with record numbers of older Australians struggling in poverty, but they still urge those experiencing debt distress to not hesitate to call.
- Government-run financial helpline on track to receive record number of cases this year
- Many calls are from older Australians who can’t meet mortgage or rent payments
- Counsellors have started fielding calls from people struggling to switch to principal and interest mortgage payments
The National Debt Helpline — a federal government-run financial counselling service — said it’s on track to receive a record number of cases through its call centres this year — many from older Australians who can’t meet their mortgage or rent payments.
“The phones just never stop now,” financial counsellor Greg said.
“They’re just going day after day, after day.
“You put the phone down, you pick the phone up again.”
Greg has been with the call centre for 14 years.
He said it’s never been so busy, now with record numbers of older Australians calling in, unable to pay rent, or make good on their mortgage repayments.
I sat with Greg while he took some calls.
One man who called in had lost his job, and the bank was on his back about meeting his repayments.
Greg coached him through his options.
“Have you approached the lender in relation to a hardship arrangement, or have you approached the lender to talk about reducing your payments, putting payments on hold, until you get back into employment?” Greg asked.
Karen Cox co-ordinates the Financial Rights Legal Centre, which runs the call centre.
“Call volumes are huge,” she said.
“We’re at capacity in terms of the number of calls we can take, in fact we’re a bit short staffed at the moment.”
For the first time, the National Debt Helpline has started fielding calls from Australians struggling to switch from interest, to principal and interest mortgage payments.
“We are seeing an increasing number of older Australians calling us,” Ms Cox said.
“Very occasionally we’re still seeing people who have just been granted a very large mortgage, even though they’re in their 50s or 60s, and one that’s set to go for a 25 or 30-year term.”
Those sorts of lending practices can lead older Australians down a financial rabbit hole.
That is when sickness can creep in and marriages break down.
Australians are struggling to switch from interest to principal and interest mortgage payments, counsellors say. (ABC News: David Taylor)
Surge in over 55s severe debt: Salvos
The Salvation Army’s financial counselling service, Moneycare, warned it was at breaking point.
In the 2017-18 financial year, Moneycare saw an 18 per cent increase in Australians seeking help.
The service has seen a big increase in the number of Australians over the age of 55 reaching out for help to deal with what it calls “severe debt”, which is debt at more than six times a person’s annual disposable income.
“The trigger may be someone who can’t afford hot water, that’s when they connect with us,” financial counsellor Kristen Hartnett said.
“For someone else it might be legal action, or someone says they can’t afford the next bill.
“People are trying to do the best they can, but we want them to connect with us so that we can see what they can do to take some of that stress off them,” Ms Hartnett said.
The Salvos’ experience with older Australians, and their growing debt distress, matches up with the call data from the National Debt Helpline.
Ms Hartnett revealed the proportion of people over the age of 55 accessing The Salvation Army’s Moneycare service has increased by 37 per cent over the past 10 years.
“I think it’s the change in circumstances,” Ms Hartnett said.
“People hit retirement, and they’re still carrying heavy debt with mortgages and credit cards.”
Commsec economist Ryan Felsman has done a lot of research on the financial challenges facing older Australians.
He said while many baby boomers rode the recent property boom, those of lower incomes had been doing it extra tough in recent years, and it was only going to getting worse.
“What we’re seeing with the data is that if you’re a pensioner, really that’s the type of person that’s under pressure,” he said.
“If you’re a self-funded retiree, generally you’ve accumulated enough savings over time to live a fairly comfortable life.
“It’s mainly people on government transfers and welfare payments that are struggling in this environment.”
And while help is available, reaching out is not always easy.
Financial counsellors say many Australians still hesitate to pick up the phone, held back by a sense of shame, deciding just to go without.
“Cutting back on food is definitely one we see on a daily basis,” the Salvos’ Kristen Hartnett said.
“People do all that they can, from my experience. I see people taking huge responsibility, and also going without very basic items to honour their debt.”
Partners call for advice
It is a scenario financial counsellor Greg is familiar with.
He took a call from a woman on Sydney’s northern beaches.
Her partner had not asked for any help, but she knew they were in financial trouble, so she called the Helpline.
“Are we talking about personal debt?” Greg asked.
“Are we talking about debt collection — any legal action on foot? What’s happening?”
Greg tried to get as much information as he could.
“Where does your partner live?”
“Now, what he needs to do is take along paperwork — so correspondence, anything he’s got in relation to his debts.
“If he can do his own mini budget at home — like food, rent, the big-picture items — that will help with the financial counsellor.
“We get a lot of third party advice calls,” Greg said.
“One party hasn’t told the other what’s happening. It can get vicious if it’s a partnership or a marriage.”
Often men try to solve the financial problem on their own, with varying degrees of success.
“Men do like to take ownership of it and do not like to make the first call,” Greg said.
“The wife will ring in with the presenting problem, and we’ll say, ‘Well, your husband should ring us or see a financial counsellor’.”
Ms Cox said hundreds of thousands of Australians struggled with credit card and mortgage debt — the most she has seen in her career managing financial help call centres.
“There’s a lot of shame around it,” she said.
“A lot of people don’t want to admit they’re in trouble, but there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who are struggling.
“So, you’re not alone, and the smartest thing to do is to get advice sooner rather than later because as time goes on, your options get more and more restrained.”
Contact the National Debt Helpline by phone on 1800 007 007.