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There's no shame in feeling lost about money during covid

by Myles Fitt, CAS Strategic Lead on Financial Health

This article was first published in the Herald on 25 November 2020.

There’s nothing worse than the feeling of being lost and overwhelmed. And during the pandemic, that feeling has become all too common. We’ve been bombarded with so much information, from so many different sources, that it can be hard to keep up.

Many of us are facing anxiety over our personal health, social relationships and family ties, but the added pressure of money worries is further exacerbating these concerns.

COVID is putting pressure on people’s incomes like never before. Government support measures like furloughs, increased funding on welfare support, payment deferrals from lenders and respite for those in debt have been a welcome buffer.

But sadly, the economic fallout of the pandemic is such that large numbers of people have experienced job loss, reduced income, savings depletion, or simply being excluded from government protection. Bills still need to be paid, the costs of daily life still need to be met, arrears built up over COVID still need to be settled and all this while incomes have been slashed.

These financial burdens are starkly shown in recent polling by YouGov for Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) which revealed that, since lockdown began, almost half of people have run out of money before payday. A further 30% are worse off now than they were before lockdown. Many people are struggling to make ends meet.

That’s why this week we have launched a new online tool called Money Map (www.moneymap.scot) to help people with their finances during this period of economic turmoil.

The tool brings together all the options for people to increase their incomes, cut their living costs and get on top of their household budgeting. Critically, it also signposts them to online sources where they can access active help.

Its strength lies in gathering all of this in one place. This saves people from having to search endlessly online for such help, not knowing who they can and can’t trust.

For over 80 years, the Citizens Advice network has offered free, confidential, independent advice.As more people are using our service for the first time during COVID, we want to offer as many options as possible for them to access our support. The Money Map is part of that effort.

An easy-to-use service you can use from the comfort of your own home, it offers information on how to increase your income via benefits and grants, as well as how to save money on things like council tax, energy bills and other daily living costs such as food, clothing and utilities. It also provides budgeting support, to help you take control of their financial situation.

One of the most frustrating things about working in the advice sector is the knowledge that many people who are struggling to make ends meet are actually entitled to some kind of financial support, but don’t know about it. Workers for example often assume that because they’re in a job they can’t get benefits. But in fact, many social security entitlements depend on your income, not your employment status.

CAB advisers frequently find clients coming to us with money worries, only to find they are entitled to benefits or grants that they’ve never claimed. Helping these people to access that money is very rewarding, but it also makes you wonder how many others are in the same position, entitled to the same support, but will never get it because they don’t know about it. The Money Map allows people to check what they could be missing out on.

For the first seven months of the pandemic CAS worked with the Diffley Partnership to track peoples’ concerns around their incomes and bills like rent, utilities, council tax and food.

What we found was that concerns around bills and daily living costs started off high in the spring, then fell gradually as the furlough scheme and other support measures were implemented, then began to creep up again as uncertainty rose about the future of these measures. During all of this, however, concerns over incomes remained stubbornly, and worryingly, high.

It’s clear that there’s no room for complacency from policymakers when it comes to ensuring that people have enough money to meet their living costs.

So when the current support measures come to an end, it must be done gradually, with great care taken to ensure that the impact on people lives is put at the centre of decision-making. Ongoing support should be provided as necessary for those who need it, to avoid an economic cliff edge that endangers the financial wellbeing of so many in this country.

And in the meantime, we want to make sure that people who are struggling financially understand that free, expert help and support is available to them, through our local Citizens Advice Bureaux across the country, and online through our self-help tools such as the Money Map.