With household debt in Australia at record levels, the need for financial counselling is becoming ever more important. Financial counselling may be a free, community-based service, but it is one that is often misunderstood by those who most stand to benefit.
What did we do?
We were engaged by Financial Counselling Australia (FCA), the peak body representing financial counsellors across Australia, to look at what behaviour change interventions might encourage people experiencing financial stress to seek help.
We conducted a Rapid Review on strategies which could be employed to overcome this reluctance.
– Relief from debt often starts with relief from thinking about debt.
– People in hardship (especially men) experience feelings of shame and powerlessness and that their self-image as capable adults gets threatened by being unable to repay their debts.
– Many people simply don’t know about financial counsellors or understand the difference between them and payday lenders (who can make the problem far more dire).
– There is fear that seeking professional advice could affect a credit rating or, if it’s poor advice, make their debt issues even worse.
– Many interventions focus on “suggestions” only; as such they are yet to be empirically tested.
What was missing?
The existing evidence was missing a more nuanced understanding of how people actually make decisions under conditions of scarcity. Leading behavioural economists argue that scarcity is not just a lack of resources, it hinders our ability to solve problems objectively. In other words, when we struggle to focus on issues beyond the here and now, our decisions are often influenced by a range of cognitive biases – mental shortcuts – which can lead to less than ideal decisions.