We often hear stories about cashed up baby boomers, but the financial reality for many older Victorians can be vastly different.

More than 20 per cent of older Australians aren’t homeowners so that in itself suggests many nest eggs aren’t as bountiful as popular perception would have it.

Property assets aside, many seniors also don’t have robust super funds to see them through, or know how to make the little they have go far enough so they aren’t left relying on the charity of family and friends.

The logical step is to seek expert help. Unfortunately, most people think this only comes from financial advisers – professionals who charge a fee for their service. But there is a free alternative – financial counsellors.

Bernadette Pasco, a manager at the Financial and Consumer Rights Council, says financial counsellors ‘provide advocacy and support to people in financial difficulty without cost or conflict’.

Unfortunately, many older people don’t know about financial counselling, she says.

Understanding finances can be made even more difficult by your circumstances. For example, your partner, who had always taken care of these matters, may have died and suddenly you have to assume responsibility for matters you don’t fully understand. But financial pressures don’t have to be borne from such extreme circumstances – trying to negotiate an affordable energy deal can be problematic enough for many seniors.

Finance is a very different experience than it once was, Bernadette says. For most people over the age of 65, banking and finance was something you did face-to-face with your local bank manager. Chances were, you knew each other because popping in at the bank was something you did as part of your weekly routine, like paying your bills at the post office.

Now, many local branches are closed and banking and finance is something that’s usually done online or via an ATM. This transition can be hard for older people, who are unaccustomed to the digital world. For many seniors it feels impersonal and can be so daunting that they simply won’t do it, even if they have access to the technology. The same applied to Centrelink, where you can’t apply for any payments face-to-face anymore.

To further compound matters, Bernadette says aged-care service providers often refer older people to financial advisers rather than financial counsellors because they don’t understand the difference and assume people have assets to think about.

Circumstances sometimes become so overwhelming for people that the prospect of financial counselling doesn’t get considered, she says.

Bernadette was recently involved in a project that explored the challenges of navigating entry into aged-care services. It found the resulting financial challenges often promoted increased social isolation and exclusion.

She says the project also revealed the very human pitfalls that result in debt – problems that aren’t peculiar to seniors but can certainly compound financial issues as people get older.

Many people don’t want to talk about financial issues because it’s too embarrassing so they sweep it under the carpet, Bernadette says.

This often results in people resorting to the worst kind of extremes, such as borrowing money from payday lenders and extending existing credit. Social isolation can also result in gambling addiction – particularly pokies, where people can feel close to people. Such triggers demonstrate the value of older people knowing about, and being able to access, financial counselling.

Why see a financial counsellor?

Financial counsellors can help you with:

  • A full financial assessment to identify problems, debt and ways to improve things.
  • Understanding types of credit, pitfalls and options about managing resulting debt.
  • Exploring options to deal with existing debt (such as mortgages and credit card debt) to reduce risk of homelessness and effect better retirement.
  • Navigating complex IT processes to access electronic online banking; information about budgeting and payments; MyGov, which houses superannuation, Medicare, Centrelink and My Aged Care information and funds that relate to you.
  • Understanding consumer marketing used by financial institutions.
  • Financial detriment caused by scams.
  • Understanding options, pitfalls and benefits of different ways to pay bills.
  • Completing the complex Centrelink Income and Assets financial assessment required to access community-based and residential aged care services.
  • Reviewing consumer contracts if you think they are unfair.
  • Negotiating on your behalf with creditors.
  • Obtaining debt waivers and suitable arrangements within the context of your situation.
  • Identifying financial abuse and getting help.

Need help?

Call the National Debt Helpline on 1800 007 007 and speak to a financial counsellor. Calls in Victoria go to MoneyHelp, a phone financial counselling service located at the Consumer Action Law Centre. Financial counsellors on the Debt Helpline can help you solve the problem yourself or refer you for a face-to-face appointment at an agency in your area.