7 Feb 2023

Financial hardship: 'The banks aren't helping them when they're struggling'

10:35 am on 7 February 2023
Close up of a man using mobile smart phone

Photo: 123rf

A national helpline for people in financial hardship says it's hearing from those in distress that banks are playing hardball.

It comes as hardship and debt collection complaints lodged with the Banking Ombudsman more than doubled in the last three months of last year, compared to the previous quarter.

MoneyTalks offers free budget advice and refers people needing ongoing help to a financial mentor near them.

Its team lead Angela Smart said they are hearing from people who think they have no options left with their banks.

"Some of them are being told in black and white no there is no option, [they] haven't even been spoken to about hardship options," she said.

"We really would love to see banks stepping up even further in regards to being able to make those conversations easier to be had."

Banking Ombudsman Nicola Sladden was warning banks to treat customers in hardship with compassion as the number of complaints across her desk rises.

The number of hardship and debt collection cases rose by 56 percent in the last quarter of 2022, compared with the three months before, she said.

"The numbers are relatively small but what is significant is the increase over the previous quarter," she said.

"The circumstances of the customers complaining appear to be wide ranging but essentially they are struggling financially and they are asking the bank for support.

"We're dealing with complaints about the banks and in this context it's that the banks aren't helping them when they're struggling."

Sladden was asking the banks to be on alert and ensure their staff were trained to respond promptly and compassionately to customers who are struggling.

"We've seen cases where a bank or a lender may have taken quite a cookie cutter or a bureaucratic response to a customer's situation and we're challenging the banks to ensure that they are looking beyond and treating every customer fairly," she said.

"We expect the increased cost of living along with rising interest rates to result in more customers with loans, part home loans, seeking support from their banks, lenders and other social service agencies."

MoneyTalks will remain open over upcoming public holidays for the first time, as it grapples with an influx of calls, texts and emails.

The helpline was receiving 150 requests for budget help a day, double the number since October.

This January has been busier than ever and they need to remain open for people who need help, Smart said.

"The demand demands it. We are now open every public holiday, every anniversary weekend because we understand for some this may be the only time they get a chance, once they've opened up their next overdue bill ... and they just go I need to talk to someone today."

More people were contacting the helpline in the middle of the night, which was a sign of distress, she said.

"We're seeing a lot more people reaching out in the night time which is always a really big worry for us ... because they're up worrying about money.

"You've got someone who is stressed out in the middle of the day but doesn't have time to be able to have that conversation or be able to reach out to get help, but they're up in the night worrying and stressing, trying to find a solution to their money woes."

The demographic of people asking for help has broadened, she said.

"We're getting a lot more people now who wouldn't have been considered to be the norm. Couples who are working full time but now they're really starting to stress out about mortgage rates, how to cope with the rise in food costs, how to cope with car loans and bank loans that previously they'd been able to keep up with."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs