Hello once again readers, and welcome to our May blog post! Spring has well and truly sprung, and on the subject of fresh beginnings we’re chatting to Kelly Smith from the Community Advice and Law Service about all things financial. Is it time you gave your finances a spring clean?
What is your role at the Community Advice and Law Service (CALS) and with Moneywise Plus?
I’m the Team Leader of the Financial Routeway. I oversee the support provided by the financial team, which comprises the advisers and advisor administrator at CALS, as well as advisors at The Y and Action Homeless. I also have my own caseload of clients that I provide support to.
What does CALS do? What is the mission of the organisation?
CALS is an advice agency specialising in debt advice. Almost all of the advisors here are specialists in their respective fields, and are trained to a high standard. The majority are Institute of Money Advisors (IMA) members and approved intermediaries for Debt Relief Orders (DROs), which is a form of insolvency that needs to be applied for through an accredited agency. Our provision includes a specialist benefits advice service that supports people with appeals and represents them at tribunals, as well as a dedicated court team who run an office at Leicester County Court and also offer representation. We have appointments and drop-in sessions for our form-filling service, which helps people apply for benefits including Employment Support Allowance (ESA). One of our specialist debt advisors is also a housing solicitor, so he’s able to deal with Legal Aid Agency cases. CALS is basically a one-stop shop for the community’s financial needs: we can see anyone based in Leicester and Leicestershire, there is no charge for our services and access is not means-tested.
Tell us about your work with Moneywise Plus.
Our work for Moneywise Plus is pre-emptive and pro-active. People usually come to us because of a change in circumstances and are looking for advice about how to manage their money with (for example) a reduced income. We aim to give people a degree of control over their finances, including household bills and utilities.
What services/support can you offer to Moneywise Plus participants?
A core service we offer is support with budgeting skills, as this enables participants to manage their finances so that they aren’t a source of stress for them. I’ve been working at CALS for 10 years now and throughout that time have seen a lot of the issues that money can cause, especially in relationships. Often the participant’s finances are a barrier to them thinking about what they want in the future in terms of employment, education and progression. By helping them to manage their money we can start to open up their thinking about what they actually want from life, and then support them in moving towards those goals.
What kind of problems do people come to see you about?
It’s very varied! We’ve already had people coming to us because they’re worried about the move to Universal Credit and how they’ll manage on a monthly income when they’re used to being paid fortnightly. They also know that the money for their rent will be paid to themselves rather than directly to their landlord, so there are a lot of concerns about that. Often we see people who are in debt and can’t see a way out of it: they realise that they’re spending more money than they’ve got coming in and know that they need to make a change, so a lot of these participants will look specifically at their household bills and find ways to adjust their spending. We do a lot of work around finding out exactly what the participant does spend, so that they can take ownership of it. We can then see what they’re not happy with and help them make some changes. On top of that we do a lot of charity applications: some of the advisors work with people who have just moved into a new tenancy and don’t have any furniture; we offer help with applying for grants to furnish their property so they feel secure in their home. Also, where people have gotten into arrears with different bills there may be grants we can help them apply for to give them a fresh start.
Why is it important for people to manage their finances effectively?
Mostly its so that they’re in control. A lot of the people we see have very complex lifestyles and lots going on, including health problems and family issues. I think for a lot of people being able to have control over even one aspect of their life is a huge thing! It’s about knowing that regardless of what else is going on in your life, at least you’re in control of something. It’s also about knowing how they can make changes: so rather than just managing in their current situation they know how to budget, manage their finances and plan for anything that may happen in the future. For example, a client can look at the salary of a job they want to apply for, budget to figure out how much they’re going to have to live on and then decide whether they can afford their bills with that income. It means that they can make a more informed decision when taking on different challenges in life.
What are some of your biggest success stories?
For me the biggest successes are not necessarily the participants who achieve a lot in terms of monetary value, but rather those that really increase their confidence and gain a lot from our support personally. There is a client I’ve been working with since November 2016, which has been very difficult at points because his needs are very complex. In December 2017 he finally received a formal diagnosis, and the first thing he said to me was: ‘now I can start thinking about going back to college and getting a part time job, because I know how I can manage going forward.’ That was huge for him: no one wants to think that someone relatively young is destined for a lifetime on benefits, that they aren’t able to achieve anything else.
Another participant I’m supporting came to this country as a young child, and for many years lived in a council property with his parents and sister. His parents have since passed away and his sister has married and moved out, but he’s still living in the same three-bedroom house paying the recently introduced bedroom tax. He’s managed his bills to date but has never had to set anything up himself. There are a lot of changes happening in his life and he has some health problems, but he engages really well, takes on board all the advice we give him, and has put a huge amount of effort into changing his situation. The Moneywise Plus team have worked with him to get on the housing register and shown him how to bid on properties. He’s also learned how to use Google Maps to look at different residential areas and see what transport there is, what he needs in that area, and how close it is to his friends and family. He’s now a lot more confident at finding that information for himself. We’ve even managed to secure him a discretionary housing payment, which covers his bedroom tax for now and allows him to manage in the house that he’s in. He’s received all the help we can offer him at the moment, but I’ll continue working with him as I know that once he moves home he’ll need to setup accounts for utility bills, which he’s never done before and will need our support for. So we’re currently waiting until he’s offered a property, at which point we can start the process of setting up his bills and making sure he understands them. Because of the way he’s grown, I’m really confident that he’s going to pick it up quickly. I don’t think it poses too big a challenge for him, but he likes to know that he’s got our support. I’m looking forward to seeing how this case develops because I think it will be a really satisfying one to work on. He’s worked with other areas of the project as well as our Financial Routeway, and it’s been great to see how each part of the project slots together with each Routeway having its own impact on the participant’s confidence and their quality of life. It’s really great to see and demonstrates how well the project works.
Do you or someone you know need to brush up on their financial skills? Moneywise Plus may be able to help you achieve this and much more. We offer support for all matters digital and financial, and can help you gain volunteering skills and confidence to become work ready. To find out if you’re eligible for our project, complete the referral form on our website or give us a call on 0300 003 7004.