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What do you do when you lose your job and your benefit no longer covers your bills and debts?

For many people, every little dollar counts and for them Tauranga Budget Advisory Service (TBAS) is a lifesaver, helping them manage their tight budgets and chip away at their debts.

The service is used by a variety of people, from those who are just terrible with money and have got themselves into trouble, to those who are on a domestic purposes or sickness benefit and are struggling to meet their family’s needs.

The benefit is only meant to cover the basic living costs, rent, power and food. People who are on benefit have to scrounge money from another part of their budget to cover any unexpected bills such as a visit to the doctor or a high winter power bill.

This can mean getting into more debt as people borrow money to pay the shortfall.

Sensible money management isn’t a skill taught at schools and TBAS helps people climb out of the holes they’ve often unknowingly dug for themselves.

Budget adviser Jon Stone allowed me to sit in on a session with a return client, who wanted to be known as Miss F, and for the first time I see a budget in action.

Miss F has been out of work for some months due to illness and has been on the benefit.
She came to TBAS of her own volition to enlist help when things got on top of her.

Her budget from the previous appointment showed all her expenditures and outgoing costs, which added up to a shortfall of about $90 a week.

Miss F has been trying to pay off a number of bills including a St John debt, doctors’ fees and medication costs.

Mr Stone encouraged Miss F to contact the organisations she owed money to and arrange small weekly repayments so her outgoings were less.

She had also been encouraged to seek help from Work and Income to pay for her medical costs.

Mr Stone looks at what Miss F has paid off since her last visit and what remains.
After an hour of writing and erasing numbers, Mr Stone has Miss F’s weekly shortfall down to about $3, a huge victory.

“Coming here has been very helpful,” Miss F said. “I’ve seen progress and things are looking a lot better than they were.

“They definitely do a worthwhile job here and I would definitely recommend them.”
As she’s about to leave, Mr Stone gives a gentle warning.

“Don’t blow it. Don’t borrow any money or have a blow out.”

Admitting you’re in financial trouble is a big initial step.

Many people try to ignore their problems and hope they will somehow disappear.
When a client asks for help, they book in for an appointment at TBAS and are allocated a volunteer budgeter with whom they sit down for an interview. 

Mr Stone said his first step in an interview is to find out what the client’s problems are, which are often much deeper than budgeting problems.

“Problems with money usually come from other problems such as a change in circumstances – a loss of a job, or a partner leaving them and their finances are halved. There are all sorts of different reasons.”

He then goes through the client’s debts to discover where they owe money and if they are in arrears.

The client then gets a “things to do” list of issues they should attempt to resolve themselves, such as talking to creditors.

Mr Stone said he tried not to do too much for the clients unless it was urgent, instead encouraging them to take control themselves.

“I try to make them feel more empowered.”

Once the debts are worked out, Mr Stone then creates a weekly budget with the client.

“We go through all the grocery payments, their rent or board, power bills, insurance, medical needs, then look at money to put aside for Christmas gifts, clothing, etcetera. It’s all on there.

“By doing that it gives an insight into how much they can actually do or afford.
“Then we’ve got their income and that gives us a figure as to whether they are in surplus at the end of the week or not. What we usually find is they are definitely not in surplus.”

Mr Stone said not all clients will take on board what he tells them but in Miss F’s case he was pleased she listened and improved her situation. Others expected him to do all the work for them.

He said the biggest issue facing those with tight budgets was large power bills.
“That comes down to things like poorly insulated houses, which leads to bigger heating bills in winter.

“Things like interest-free finance also hurts. It is very tempting. We live in a society where you must have it now and everything is on show.”

Everything TBAS offers is free. The service has its home at the Historic Village but also has drop-in clinics at different locations in Tauranga for people in outlying areas.

“Tauranga Budget Advisory Service is very important to the community,” manager Diane Bruin said.

“We provide the free service and really try to be in areas where we are most needed. “It’s about accessibility, people without transport have big challenges so we try and meet those needs.”

This year, TBAS celebrates its 42nd birthday. Mrs Bruin said her ideal would be to see the service continue to operate free to the public.

The organisation is reliant on its volunteers, who must go through proper training to become a licensed budgeter and be supervised until they are qualified.

“We deal with about 1800 clients a year and we average about 22 budgeters actually working each week.”

The biggest problem the service deals with is people who don’t show up for appointments.
“They may have other appointments or they just can’t face coming in and getting help.”

Six-and-a-half years ago, Jo Edlin signed up at TBAS as a budgeter.

“My daughter-in-law saw it advertised on the back of a newspaper. She said it would be good for me because I’m good with money.”

Mrs Edlin said TBAS was an important service because there are a lot of people who haven’t been taught how to manage money “and there’s so many temptations out there”.

She is one of a group of budget advisers who have been assigned to the Total Money Management project, where a client signs over complete control of their finances to a budgeter.

“I see mostly custodial clients, so people on ACC or who have special needs. Some have gambling problems or other addictions.

“I’ve got one client I deal with because if I didn’t her family would take all her money.”
Mrs Edlin said her clients were only just managing to stretch their money.

“We deal with a lot of power companies. We have to try and emphasise to our clients that the benefit is only for three things, power, food and rent.”

In the afternoon, I sit in on an information session with a group of budgeters held by Sandy Ritchie, a heart health advocate with Heart Foundation.

Ms Ritchie wants to help the budgeters teach their clients how to eat healthily on a budget, but this is much harder than it sounds.

“To say to someone ‘you shouldn’t buy Coke’ when that’s what they do is very difficult.
“Sometimes I find when I talk to people, I talk about their children and the nutrients they need to function and learn at school. That can be helpful.”

She draws a diagram on a whiteboard of a healthy plate.

Half of the plate should be “colourful” vegetables, one-quarter should be “starchy” (think potatoes, rice, kumara), and the last quarter meat, eggs or fish.

“Most people talk about how they have meat and veg for dinner. Actually, it should be vegetables and meat.”

Mrs Ritchie said this plan should be followed for every meal of the day, not just dinner.
This was followed up with a discussion about what typical TBAS clients could actually afford.

Cheap white bread was discussed. The resolution was it should be avoided but if a family was desperate it would be a good filler. One budgeter suggested buying one cheap loaf and one better quality loaf and making a sandwich using a slice from each.

Most of the families dealing with TBAS have a maximum $80 or $90 a week for food, one volunteer said.

Ms Ritchie said families should be planning meals in advance and suggested money-saving tips such as “meat-free Mondays”.

Lentils were a great filler food and a tin could be added to mince as a way to make a meal go further.

Ms Ritchie then told budgeters a good idea was to teach their clients how to shop – by sticking to the outside aisles of a supermarket where the fresh food was kept and only venturing into the other aisles for specific needs such as coffee or rice.

I’m terrible with money and I’m the first to admit it. I am what one of the volunteers calls a “fritterer”, spending all my money in dribs and drabs and ending up with too much week left at the end of my money.

Spending a day with TBAS forced me to face the realisation that if anything were to happen to my ability to work, I’d be in desperate need of the help TBAS provides.