The beginning of a new year can be an expensive time for families in Queensland. Having to fork out extra money during the back-to-school period, and bills arriving not long after the festive season can lead to problem debt. If you or someone you know is having spiralling debt issues, it’s important to act quickly.
Problem debt is when someone does not have the capacity to pay back a debt – it could be a banking or payday lenders debts, utility bill, or an unpaid fine or a penalty with the State Penalties Enforcement Registry (SPER), or a combination of these debts.
Problem debts are becoming a bigger issue in Queensland. QCOSS’ 2019 Living Affordability in Queensland report found many people do not have enough money to get by, especially in regional areas where the cost-of-living is higher. The report found people on Newstart and Youth Allowance are particularly vulnerable to problem debt, often finding it impossible to stretch already very thin budgets to cover additional expenses such as Christmas gifts and back-to-school expenses.
An essential first step is to contact the credit or utility provider and let them know the customer is experiencing financial hardship. Many companies have hardship officers who can assess the situation and work out what help is available.
If the customer does not contact the provider, the debt accumulates and can lead to disconnection of a service, default listing, and being placed with a debt collection agency. A poor credit history can create further barriers in getting credit or signing up to utilities at a later stage.
By law, all energy retailers must have a published hardship policy. Energy hardship policies are regulated by the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) and can be found on the AER website.
The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) has information on how to get help if you or someone you know is struggling to pay a telecommunications bill.
For toll debts, Transurban (Linkt assist) has a hardship program to help people who cannot pay their tolls and toll fines. For SPER debt, people experiencing hardship can apply to resolve their debt by completing relevant courses, attending counselling and treatment programs, or completing unpaid work with an approved hardship partner.
If you or a person you know is feeling overwhelmed, another option is to speak to a financial counsellor. Counsellors offer a free, independent and confidential service, aiming to get people back on track with their finances. The National Debt Helpline can provide advice over the phone and/or refer the customer to the nearest financial counsellor. Alternatively, Moneycare (Salvation Army), UnitingCare and Indigenous Consumer Alliance Network (ICAN) also provide financial counsellors.
There are also specialised rural financial counsellors who focus on farming and agri-businesses in regional areas. Financial counsellors can also assist people with financial hardship due to gambling.
Unlike energy and telco providers, only water providers in South East Queensland need to have a policy for people having difficulty paying their bills. Howeer, these policies only apply to ratepayers, not renters. QCOSS has created a fact sheet for what to do when you can’t pay a bill. For tenants’ rights when paying water charges to landlords or agents, QCOSS’ fact sheet on Water Information for Tenants may help.