Empowering Australians to be confident with money

with Nicole Pedersen-McKinnon

“I think people get sick of hearing me say how much I love my job,” Laura Higgins laughingly tells me over coffee at ASIC’s head office in Canberra. “I couldn’t have imagined that I would be in a place at this point in my life where every day I’m thinking about how I can make a difference.”

That difference is to the financial freedom of us Aussies… as many of us as absolutely possible.

Laura runs the team responsible for our National Financial Capability Strategy, which outlines how the government seeks to assist in the above, in conjunction with the private and public sector.

Laura and Nicole chatting at a cafe

“It’s really a story that involves a lot of people because what we want is more Australians in control of their financial lives, which means they’re better prepared to do things like manage their money day-to-day, plan for the future and make informed financial decisions,” she says.

To help them along, Laura is in charge of, the totally independent resource for looking up, tracking or modelling virtually any aspect of your money life. It’s now visited by more than 7 million people a year.

A young woman using a laptop

And don’t believe anyone who tells you our kids still don’t receive a financial education in schools – since 2015, ‘money smarts’ has been part of the Australian Curriculum in multiple core subjects, including Maths and Business and Economics, but also often taught in other subjects like English and Science. Also since 2015, ASIC’s MoneySmart Teaching program has offered teachers ready-made lesson plans to make passing on this vital information to our next generation as easy as possible (and to help them improve their own finance skills!).

Now used in more than 70% of schools across the country, the Financial Capability team worked closely with the Australian Government Financial Literacy Board and the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) to embed financial literacy education in the curriculum. This is a significant achievement and the envy of countries like New Zealand, Canada and the UK.

Relaxed… and comfortable

Tell me Laura, what does someone who is financially capable look like and how is their life different from someone else’s? I ask.

Laura: What we’ve paid a lot of attention to is the fact that it’s different for everyone. So, whether you have a lot of money, or a little bit of money, or not enough, that sense of feeling out of control could be familiar regardless. Often people with small amounts of money are great money managers because they make every bit count. And I think we’re really conscious of that.

Whether you have a lot of money, or a little bit of money, or not enough, that sense of feeling out of control could be familiar regardless.

Can I get personal? What do you think brought you here, to this job and this position? What your parents taught you?

Laura: That’s a tricky question because I don’t think my parents would say they are very good with money. I grew up in Canada in a small town of probably 50-ish thousand people. It’s a blue-collar town with big factories and my family has stayed in that small town. My dad worked at the same job and the same building his whole working life, so from about 18 until when he retired at 60. They didn’t have access to a lot of funds and they gave up a lot for us, you know, in supporting my brother and I.

An old picture of Laura when she was a baby playing with her Dad

But you were able to go to university…

Laura: I went to university at 17 and until my [eldest] daughter started university, I’d been the only person in my family to ever go. To do it I worked a few jobs [at once] because you had to leave home to go and it was really expensive. I worked for an electrician – I did lots of work on construction sites, which was early morning work so I could still do things in the afternoon. I worked at The Beer Store. Now, this was a great job because of their rates of pay – I drove a little forklift truck and moved pallets of beer. I guess I was looking for how I could make the most money in any given hour. I did a lot in hindsight – more time spent studying might have been better [laughs]!

Laura smiling as she's chatting with Nicole at a cafe

Laura took her first teaching job in Kuwait, requiring one of her first international flights.

Laura: So again, it was looking at the pay that I would make in a year and what money I could maybe send home or, you know, fund the next path of my life with. It was really important to me that I shared my opportunities with my parents as well. So, I’ve always done my best to do that and bring them along on this part of my adventure.

The Australian part of that adventure began when Laura was in her early 20s, and quickly became permanent. Laura now lives in Canberra with her husband and their two daughters.

Fast forward to today

It’s fair to say Laura’s experience with money growing up was formative… and informed not just her life decisions but perhaps her career.

Laura: It’s not that my parents weren’t capable but I think that they found dealing with money a bit scary and I supposed that’s why that’s really important, in what I do every day, to help people feel confident.

She’s at pains to point out most people look at long financial documents and feel bamboozled: “You’re not alone in that and I think that gives people some peace of mind.”

So what is your top tip for people confronted with an overwhelming financial decision?

Laura: Go to the website – there aren’t any stupid questions! But start there and think about what question to ask next because somebody will have had that experience. There will be something there; something in it for you.

She emphasizes that money and its management shouldn’t be scary or intimidating… and you shouldn’t ignore an issue if that’s how you feel about it.

Laura: So, growing up, with my parents, I had to be really brave and kind of say, okay, I’m going to get on this plane, I’m going to go to this foreign country where no one that I know has been before. And I think it’s the same with finances so it’s a new financial decision or choice or making that kind of change. It’s about not being afraid, of not being afraid to ask questions and talk to people around you.

And would you share the best piece of money advice you’ve ever been given?

Laura: Oh, I think I’ll be pretty boring in my response and say: don’t spend more than you have. It is really, really important because I think that’s when people get stressed. And I think experiencing stress related to finances is difficult to manage and can be damaging for families and relationships, and it’s easy then to get stuck in a bit of a debt cycle.

Experiencing stress related to finances is difficult to manage and can be damaging for families and relationships.

She has a message specifically for women too.

Laura: Actually stop and reflect what a great job you’re doing as a money manager in some aspects of your life and then amplify that. Because every woman that I’ve met and spoken to either has a list of some sort, whether, you know, it’s a shopping list for, you know, what’s in season, what’s on sale, or they’re shopping around for brands for when kids are going back to school. All of these things make them excellent money managers and what I want them to do is amplify what they’re good at, what they’re great at, talk to each other, help the people around them, and understand that they can ask questions… just to take it that next step further, including thinking about their future selves.

Laura laughing with Nicole at a cafe


Nicole Pedersen-McKinnon

Nicole Pedersen-McKinnon

Money educator and commentator

Photos by Kim Sinclair

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