What's it really like?
Sarah Kruczek is 25 and a Debt Counsellor for the charity Christians Against Poverty (CAP) She gives us the inside story …
I have been working for CAP for three years, beginning in the Client Services team as a debt counsellor and working up to be Client Services team leader. Before starting work at CAP I completed an English and Business Degree at Lincoln University and then spent a year doing a finance internship with a summer camp in America.
In a typical day at work I manage a portfolio of clients' accounts with the aim of working with them until they become debt free. This may be through a repayment plan or, in the worse cases, through insolvency. My daily workload consists of managing incoming phone calls, post and e-mails from clients, creditors and other departments. All our clients have had their own financial statement and budget prepared for them by other debt counsellors, and this shows their income and expenditure and works out how much disposable income they have left to repay their debts. As individuals' circumstances change all the time we must amend their statements when income and expenditure changes, liaising with their creditors to set up realistic payment plans and making sure people are progressing on a route which will help them get debt free in a reasonable amount of time.
We encourage all our clients to save in their accounts for annual costs as well as for Christmas, birthdays and unforeseen circumstances. I love it when clients call up to draw on their savings and they discover they have more money than they think. Some of our clients have never saved before in their lives and it's great seeing the benefits that saving brings for them. I also love being able to tell clients they are debt free; it is such a relief and an achievement for them, and something that is amazing to be able to share in.
Because the service is phone-based, clients have to co-operate by sending in all the necessary paperwork, paying into their account (so we can pay their bills and debts) and updating us about any changes in circumstances. Our clients can live pretty chaotic lives and sometimes they can struggle without direct face-to-face contact. It is always sad to have to close an account because of non co-operation when you know a client is having a tough time. Because we believe we need to be fair to creditors as well as to clients it is important that we have accurate up-to-date financial information and are aware of the client's accurate income at all times. If clients are unable to co-operate with this system we have to close their accounts, which is difficult.
Whilst I am still a debt counsellor, I am also a team leader and line manage a team of six other people who are in the same or similar roles. The charity I work for is growing and will continue to grow so there may be an opportunity to take on more management responsibility further down the line.
To someone looking to do this job I would advise that they need to be able to multi-task, have clear verbal and written communication skills and the ability to remain calm and professional when communicating in challenging situations. It is important that debt counsellors are motivated by compassion towards people in need and have the confidence to communicate with clients and creditors in a professional, respectful and helpful way over the phone. Debt counsellors also need good administration skills, a logical, articulate approach to work and the ability to work accurately and pay attention to detail.
A debt counsellor works with a portfolio of clients to provide practical and emotional support to help them manage complex personal debt.
Debt counsellors are responsible for dealing with complex debt situations, helping people to manage their finances and eventually become debt free. They provide practical help and advice to clients whose debts have got out of control, advising on issues such as financial planning, budgeting, money management and bankruptcy. Debt counsellors liaise with creditors on behalf of clients, give legal advice and support clients with court proceedings. They also give emotional support to clients who are stressed or anxious about their financial situation.
- Liaising with clients about their initial debt situation
- Assessing clients' monthly income and expenditure
- Offering emotional support to clients
- Working with clients to determine priority payments
- Preparing monthly payment plans for clients to follow
- Communicating with clients as their debt situation changes
- Following up late payments/ paperwork with clients
- Liaising/ negotiating with creditors to arrange realistic repayments for clients
- Managing relevant financial documents/ paperwork
- Advising clients on issues such as financial planning/ budgeting/ money management
- Helping clients get access to relevant benefits
- Giving legal support and advice to clients e.g. by attending court hearings
- Supporting clients through the process of bankruptcy if debts are too big to get back under control
- Good communication skills – both verbal and in writing
- A compassionate and empathetic approach
- Excellent administrative skills
- A knowledge of computers and office software
- Good listening skills
- A personable approach
- The ability to gain the trust of others
- Good negotiation skills, particularly when dealing with creditors
- Being able to maintain an objective/ non-judgemental position even when talking with clients about emotional/ difficult situations
- Good organisational abilities
- The ability to meet deadlines and manage conflicting priorities
- A good knowledge of issues relating to debt and money management
- Good numeracy and literacy
- A grasp of a foreign language (depending on the area in which you work)
- A desire to help people get out of difficult situations
- A respect for client confidentiality
- The ability to relate to people from a wide spectrum of backgrounds
- A flexible/ adaptable approach to the job
- Accuracy and good attention to detail
- The ability to stay calm under pressure
- The confidence to liaise professionally with clients and creditors
Debt counsellors could expect to start on a salary of around £20,000 although with managerial responsibilities or as a specialist caseworker this could increase to £30,000.
There are no specific qualifications needed to become a debt counsellor, but depending on the organisation a degree may be an advantage. There is a broad spectrum of relevant degrees including accountancy and finance, social work or psychology. Of even more relevance is a course such as the wiseradviser scheme, a national training programme run by the Money Advice Trust. This provides the basic skills/ knowledge needed for debt counsellors to start giving debt advice to clients. Depending on the needs of the local community it may also be an advantage to have a good grasp of a foreign language.
Relevant work experience is of more importance than formal qualifications and most debt counsellors begin in a related voluntary role. It is important to demonstrate good people skills so experience working with people in any capacity, but particularly with those who are vulnerable, will be of relevance. Many debt counselling charities or organisations rely on the goodwill of volunteers so it will usually be possible to find voluntary opportunities in the field, such as giving general advice in a centre.
It will also be useful to have work experience in a finance-related role e.g. as a bank cashier or in a debt recovery role, or even in a non-professional role such as managing a budget for a community group or society. Experience using computers/ working in an administrative capacity will also be useful as debt counsellors split their time between desk-based duties and liaising with clients.
Debt counsellors typically work normal office hours, Monday – Friday, 9am – 5pm. In exceptional circumstances they may be required to work out of hours to meet with clients, in the evenings or on Saturdays. Being a debt counsellor is a desk-based role although some debt counsellors will often work out of the office, meeting face-to-face with clients and creditors and occasionally attending court hearings. Others will only deal with clients over the phone or in writing. Paid positions are usually reliant on funding so tend to be competitive and on fixed-term contracts of no more than two years.
The biggest employer of debt counsellors is the Citizens Advice Bureau but debt counsellors may also find work with specialist Monetary Advice Units, local authority advice centres, universities or colleges, trade unions or with a specialist charity such as Christians Against Poverty (CAP).
As debt counsellors progress they may take on managerial responsibilities, such as leading a team of several debt counsellors or training up new debt counsellors. They could also take on more complex casework by undertaking more specialist training courses delivered by the Money Advice Trust.