Juggling numbers and lives

Diane Bruin has been a financial mentor to many people struggling to pay the bills.

Plastic cards, pay-day lenders and truck shops. According to debt expert Diane Bruin, they are the three evils confronting people who “don’t know what they don’t know” about managing money.

A mentor, advisor and champion for those sinking in debt, Diane has been the beacon of hope at the top of the stairs down at the Historic Village.

The corporate banker turned humanitarian has been the manager of Tauranga Budget Advisory Service for eight years, untangling financial ruin, rebuilding lives and offering hope where there was none.

Now the champion is gone from the TBAS and looking for a new challenge, but not before making some observations about debt and debtors.

“Debt has become too easy,” says Diane. “We want everything now, and it’s made easy for us to have it.” She points the finger squarely at those who deal in debt.

First in the firing line are pay-day lenders. “We borrow money against next week’s pay cheque and can’t make the repayments.”

And the truck shops? “They say a new TV will only cost $30, but don’t tell you it will take three years to pay it off.”

How about debit and credit cards? “We have lost sight of the value of a dollar. The cards don’t mean anything to people - it’s not money to them. Cards just make things accessible to people who can’t afford them.”

On the other hand, she says, parting with physical money is not so easy. “These aren’t bad people,” she says. Rather they are good people who just don’t know what they don’t know.

Life was different when Diane Bruin became manager of Tauranga Budget Advisory Services.

“It was always about short-term needs and quick fire solutions in 2012. People would come in for a food parcel and we wouldn’t see them again.” Those were the days when electricity was expensive and bled household budgets, but accommodation wasn’t a problem.       

It was post-global financial crisis, and there were mortgagee sales. Families on the street. The reliance on Work and Income benefits was high, and there was a lot more third generational dependence on benefits.

People didn’t have the advantage of Job Seekers and other online job listings to find work. All factors creating work for the TBAS, and for people like Diane Bruin.

Nowadays, when they open the slide window down at the Historic Village office, the issue is invariably homelessness and emergency and the high cost of accommodation. “Much more intensive stuff,” says Diane.

But the banker, turned volunteer, turned manager loved her work. “People would arrive in desperation,” she explains, “but with a little intervention, they would come out the other side.

“They would make some good life choices and move on. We would work with them and a lot of them made permanent changes, good changes.”

From a job that could understandably be heartbreaking and very, very depressing, Diane Bruin could take great comfort and immense pride. Like the time she ran a programme about reducing personal debt, saving and buying a home. In one case, she even salvaged a marriage.

Diane Bruin enjoys sharing this anecdote - one that shines through the darkness of managing debt. It’s about a professional couple, smart but not so smart with their dollars. They dreamed of owning a home, but were shackled by a $30,000 debt. “They had no idea where their money was going,” she says.

“They had bank statements but couldn’t figure things. They started working with one of our financial mentors. With help, they decided on budget cuts, where they could save and pay off their debt.”

They went on to build their own home.

“They said it saved their marriage – it’s one case in which we did some great work.”

There would be many more untold stories of great work done by the Tauranga Budget Advisory Service. 

Her message is not a new one. It’s been hammered long and hard with little uptake. “We need financial education in schools. Children need to know about saving, investing and what they can do to help themselves.” She believes it might take 20 years for attitudes to change. “But then people would be thinking differently about money because they will have been educated.”

She also believes in turning a problem into part of the solution.

“My ideal is a family getting together with the kids once a week to discuss money. Johnny over there may want a laptop next year, but probably today. Let’s discuss that. Here’s the money coming into the household and these are our priorities. How should we spend our money?

“It gives them a very good grounding in a family budget, and makes them part of the decision making and the solution.”

Even though it has been wall-to-wall money woes for eight years at the helm, Diane Bruin can still go home and say she had a great day. “We do a lot of collaboration with other agencies,” she says, “and when you go out and meet people at a homeless hui, for example, and they say ‘we saw X the other day and he’s fantastic after seeing your staff’. That makes it worthwhile.”

She was a banker and retains all the style of the corporate world. But there’s humility.

“I always get respect and I always give respect. We pride ourselves on being non- judgmental, so if a poor person is out there and they are homeless, they get exactly the same respect from me as someone who isn’t poor. Unless you have that attitude, you would never survive in this organisation.”

And Diane Bruin is a survivor.