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Financial counseling ‘cleaned up so much mess’ after Jacqueline’s life was devastated by unexpected trauma

Jacqueline Goodwin became a widow with two babies at age 25 and can test how quickly life can change.

Aside from her grief and personal trauma, the financial strain left her equally devastated.

“When you come to this fork in the road where you have no money to eat — we need to get rid of the stigma — from the point of view like this can really happen to anybody,” she said.

“By the time I had started to get on my emotional feet, my finances were completely caving in because I had borrowed money.

People in financial distress might think an accountant does the same thing as a financial planner or a financial counselor – but their services are quite different.

Just like specialists in medicine, those working in finance also have different areas of expertise.

Financial counselors should not charge for their services, and through referrals from the National Debt Helpline (NDH), people struggling to get out of debt can use their services.

Ms Goodwin faced an uncertain future when her husband, Queensland Police Constable Mark Goodwin, was killed while on duty in 1991.

“I got married to a wonderful police officer who kind of started to rescue me,” she said.

“He was the first person who ever gave me unconditional love and every time I say that, I start tearing up.

“Pandora’s box was opened. I already had postnatal depression — my eldest child was 14 months and my youngest was only just three months old when Mark was killed.

After the trauma of losing her husband, Jacqueline Goodwin had other relationships that involved domestic violence.(ABC NewsAlice Pavlovic)

“I’m trying to emerge out of this and I’m trying to get some kind of jogging.

“I would get jobs that I couldn’t stay in and then I was losing my children.

“Then self-esteem — what’s that? You don’t even understand where the boundary of you starts and ends.”

Domestic violence contributed to dire financial situation

After the trauma of losing her husband, Ms Goodwin had other relationships that involved domestic violence.

Ms Goodwin said friends were providing her with food because she could not afford to pay for groceries and her mortgage.

“I had two credit cards and they had been born out of a domestic violence [situation],” she said.

“I’m in absolute dire straits. The most important thing to me is to pay my mortgage and pay my health insurance.”

She said she kept her bank aware of her financial situation and was given a two-month reprieve on her mortgage and referred to a free financial counsellor.

“I’m like ‘oh my God, thank you so much’ and I’m crying, seriously crying,” she said.

“[But] I was thinking when they told me to go to the community centre, I was like ‘a community center — what are they going to do?'”

That’s where Ms Goodwin met Jeffrey Chong — the Redland Community Center’s financial counsellor.

Jacqueline Goodwin in her house having a coffee with her partner.
Jacqueline Goodwin says no-one should feel shame or stigma about getting financial counseling help.(ABC NewsAlice Pavlovic)

“Jeff always makes it like I can always ring him and he just makes it really simple for me.

“He’s helped me to get over a lot of fear — he puts everything in a nice black and white way.”

She said the expertise of a financial counselor like Mr Chong helped enormously when dealing with banks and credit providers.

“I’ve seen him have a go at people who are lending money to people who have hardly any ability to even keep their dog fed, let alone keep petrol in a car,” she said.

Jacqueline Goodwin walks along a path looking out at the waters of Moreton Bay at Manly.
For Jacqueline Goodwin, her financial journey is now on a stronger path thanks to her financial counsellor.(ABC NewsAlice Pavlovic)

“He definitely is there to help remind the lender [of their responsibilities].”

Ms Goodwin said there needed to be more promotion about the availability of financial counseling as a free service.

“I also think our society is going to have higher rates of suicide if we do not make this a more obvious service,” she said.

Ms Goodwin said her financial journey was now on a stronger path thanks to Mr Chong and she had a renewed purpose in life.

Brisbane woman Jacqueline Goodwin smiles at her partner Jamie in a park
Jacqueline Goodwin with her partner Jamie.(ABC NewsAlice Pavlovic)

“I’m not scared of anything… Jeff used his pen and his heart and lassoed [my financial situation]. He is the most amazing guy,” Ms Goodwin said.

Tens of thousands seek financial counseling each year

Financial Counseling Australia (FCA) — the not-for-profit association that oversees the profession — said there were about 800 financial counselors working across the country for tens of thousands of people who seek financial counseling every year.

However, FCA chief executive Fiona Guthrie said there were “a lot of for-profit businesses who try and trade off our good name.”

“A lot of people are doing Google searches and so on, and unfortunately the paid ads come up first, so people think they might be doing the right thing and they can be easily misled — that’s very, very frustrating.

“The type of calls we’re getting are a lot related to cost of living — people not being able to pay for essentials, so not just debt — the debt would be on top of that.”

Fiona Guthrie speaks as she stands at a lecture addressing a conference.
Fiona Guthrie says no-one should pay for financial counselling, as those that do, have their own interests focused on getting paid.(Supplied: Financial Counseling Australia)

Allison Wicks, CEO of Redland Community Centre, east of Brisbane, said for-profit organizations that offered similar services should not call it financial counseling and may be using different terms.

“You do not need to pay to have a budget put in place, and for financial counseling advocacy that you may need to sort through those bills that you’ve got, [and] advocate to collection agencies.”

Ms Wicks said any financial counselor who was a member of the FCA should not charge a fee.

“Financial counseling — it’s free, it’s independent — it’s similar to being a JP,” Ms Wicks said.

“I think that people perceive that when a service is free, it doesn’t hold the same level of skill, credibility.

“That is totally and utterly incorrect when it comes to financial counseling — because it is quite a qualification to achieve.”

Allison Wicks smiles as she helps a client at the center.
Allison Wicks, the CEO at the Redland Community Centre, says any financial counselor who is a member of the FCA should not be charging a fee.(Supplied: Redland Community Center)

National Debt Helpline referral

Ms Wicks said people could access financial counseling via the National Debt Helpline and from there they were referred to agencies for more help.

When the COVID pandemic hit, Ms Wicks said 25 per cent of her centre’s clients were new.

“In most cases, one or other of these — high petrol costs, increase in interest rates, increase in energy, a housing crisis — one of those would be enough to cause major ripples, like a butterfly effect, through the community — we’ go got the whole box and say,” Ms Wicks said.

She said her center was seeing more people becoming very stressed amid Australia’s economic situation.

Ms Wicks said the main role of financial counselors was to advocate and negotiate.

“They are the world’s best negotiators for arrangements for people in financial hardship and that’s very much dependent on that particular person’s set of individual circumstances,” she said.

“By the time it gets to a collection agency, everyone fears that it’s gone too far and end up in court.

“The letters that they craft as part of that advocacy to banks — it’s all really well managed and produces some outstanding results — literally millions of dollars has been lifted from people as a financial burden – and you can imagine the stress that also lifts.”

Financial counselors ‘completely impartial’

FCA financial counselor Deb Shroot said her clients were provided with different options rather than told what to do.

“What financial counselors do is present all the pros and cons of each of those options so that the client can make an informed decision,” Ms Shroot said.

“I think that’s really, really important to know and we’re completely impartial.

“The way I explain the difference is that financial planners help people who’ve got money to invest. Financial counselors help people who are struggling with debt.”

Deb Shroot smiles as she stands with another person.
Deb Shroot says financial counselors are always working in the best interests of the person.(Supplied: Financial Counseling Australia)

Many people are now ‘self-helping’

The National Debt Helpline service was expanded to offer a national chat service on its website since July 1 and a small business debt helpline was also available.


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