Financial Literacy

-Written by Judy Piercey

Roland OCampo spends most of his life helping people manage their money. As a cultural navigator for the Filipino community, he uses his professional expertise as a financial adviser as well as volunteering at church to teach people about the problems of debt.

Roland estimates that more than half the people he helps navigate life in Canada are in debt, even though many couples work two or three jobs.

For people who have come to Canada with strong family cultures and support from extended communities, the financial pressures in Canada are often overwhelming.

Roland knows men who borrow from friends, or even private lenders, to meet financial obligations. They try to keep the debt secret from their wives because of shame and a sense of failure as breadwinners.

"Couples don't talk about money. They try to avoid it. And we're trying to get them into a different mindset, wherein money, finances should be talked about by both parties. I have a case where the wife learned about her husband's secret from the wife of the husband's drinking buddy because the wife overheard the discussion when they were drinking. And the wife was just surprised that, 'oh, do we have that problem?'"

Helping women to learn the tools to stretch the household budget is a goal of Naima Haile. She's using her expertise with managing budgets to help women in the Oromo and Eritrean community understand differences between shopping in Canada and their countries of origin.

"I tell them about shopping in bulk so they're not paying for all that packaging," says Naima. "All that packaging is just marketing. It costs money! You have to pay for that. But if you shop in bulk, you're not paying for packaging. It's more like shopping in the markets back home."

She also goes through the household expenses, line by line. "I ask them to write down how much they spend on cellphone, cable and Internet. It's probably $200, $250 a month. Then we talk about ways to bring that cost down. I teach them how to call up companies and ask for bundles. They're really surprised to hear that they can negotiate for just the channels and services that they want.

It's empowering for women to learn that they can help reduce costs because marital problems often arise from debt.

For Michael Tekeste, a cultural navigator with the Eritrean community, family conflict over money is part of his day-to-day professional life. In his work with the Multicultural Health Brokers, he supports families whose financial pressures often escalate into family violence and into the courts.

"Often, mom wants to send money back home to her family and her parents. Dad wants to save up here and pay his bills. Save a bit of money for  a better life. Or vice-versa. Sometimes, the abuse is that dad is working and mom is at home and doesn't know anything about money. Dad opens his own account, sends to his family members or whatever. She doesn't have freedom to buy things, buy clothes for the children. Money is the thing that divides the couple."

At a cultural navigators' meeting, the discussion grows, animated with dozens of stories about debt destroying people's health, family life, relationships. Everyone shares the challenges of balancing the needs of extended family in their country of origin with those of their own children here in Edmonton.

Joseph Luri, a mentor for the Sudanese cultural navigators, understands the dilemma all too well. He helped pay for his brother's education in Uganda until his own debt grew so high that he could no longer send money.

"I needed the money to pay my debts. I called him and said I'm totally defeated." But his brother surprised him with a question.

He asked me 'Do you think if you die tomorrow, I will leave school? No, I won't leave school. No, I will look for other options.'"

Roland says most of his clients send about $500 to the Philippines each month, although some send as much as $1,500. The money, called "remittances," is part of the $24 billion the World Bank says foreign-born Canadians send back home every year.

The cultural navigators share information about resources to help newcomers adjust to values around material goods in Canada, with a view to prevent family conflict, especially with children who want to keep up with their friends. The cultural navigators point to Statistics Canada reports that show Canadian households carry $1.65 of debt for every dollar of disposable income. The caution against buying new cars and expensive clothing, sharing their own stories about falling into the trap of consumerism as newcomers.

Josephine Pallard, a mentor to the Filipino cultural navigators, laughs when she remembers coming to Canada in the 1970s and realizing how easy it was to spend more than she could afford.

"Back home, I came home from work every day and washed my clothes to wear again the next day. But when I came here, I noticed right away that the women at work had a different dress every day. On Monday, one dress. Tuesday, a different one. Wednesday a different one again. And so on. So, I wanted to do that too. But what I forgot was that back home I could go out into the garden and pick something for my dinner. Here in Canada, I had to buy groceries."

Roland warns people to also watch for the small expenses that add up. "When I tell people to look at how much it costs to have the coffee every day, they go 'Wow, is it that much?' If they're spending too much, I tell them to eat rice and beans, beans and rice, rice and beans as (debt-reduction expert) Dave Ramsay would often say."

Right now, Roland is supporting a man who tried to commit suicide because he saw no hope of paying off $15,000 of debt after losing his job.

"Now he's on the road to recovery. He's got a job. And a plan to pay off his bills."