Can banks grasp how Aboriginal people talk about money?

For Indigenous Australians, there is a sense that wealth is for sharing

In a research first, a new report has highlighted how the financial stress experienced by Indigenous Australians is disproportionately higher than in the wider population. But the report also reveals Aboriginal peoples’ attitude to money is very different to non-Indigenous Australians. 

Indigenous financial literacy organisation, First Nations Foundation (FNF), this year joined with the Centre for Social Impact (CSI) at UNSW Business School and NAB to shed light on Indigenous Australian’s access to financial services and their attitudes to money. 

The report, Money Stories, paints a picture of Indigenous people in urban and regional communities dealing with high or severe financial stress. Of the 600 Indigenous Australians surveyed, 54% found it difficult to meet basic living expenses, while three-quarters had problems getting financial help during the past 12 months. 

In comparison, one in 10 people in the wider population experience high levels of financial stress. 

The research also found that Indigenous Australians hold markedly different views about money than non-Indigenous Australians, says CSI CEO and professor of social policy at UNSW Business School, Kristy Muir, which provides a useful insight into how to strengthen financial resilience for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. 

“For Indigenous Australians, there is a sense that wealth is for sharing,” Muir says. 

“Three in four people said they had helped their family either through giving them cash or helping to pay bills.” 

'Too often, the target is on alleviation of disadvantage instead of building opportunities for Aboriginal people'


Reframing the question

FNF chair and Yorta Yorta man, Ian Hamm, says family and community wellbeing, rather than individual wealth and accumulation of money or assets, reflects a different way of looking at the world. 

“We have a different set of priorities and different kinds of relationship to those around us,” says Hamm. 

“The assumption that Aboriginal people want to be like non-Aboriginal people is fundamentally wrong. This report is the first time that has been qualified in economic terms.” 

Given that knowledge, the question of how Indigenous Australians can become more included in the economy becomes reframed. Hamm says a long-term structural approach is needed to build not just individual wealth but collective income. 

“Too often, the target is on alleviation of disadvantage instead of building opportunities for Aboriginal people. [We need to be asking] how can we increase their capacity to raise their income and build their capital not just as individuals but also as a community as a whole.” 

In the short term, however, getting access to cash quickly is a major problem for Indigenous Australians, with three in five saying they couldn’t access $2000 in a week to cover an emergency, compared with one in five in the wider population. 

Strategic approach 

“We would love financial institutions to look at breaking down the barriers to accessing financial services,” says Muir. 

“We know that among Indigenous people there are trust, geographic, transportation and cost issues, among other challenges. What should the banks and superannuation companies be doing to make themselves culturally accessible to Indigenous people who are a growing economic force?” 

This isn’t simply an opportunity for individual businesses to increase their custom and sell their products, explains Hamm. 

“It’s about having a strategic approach to getting more Aboriginal people engaged with the sector and getting the financial sector to better understand Aboriginal people so that they can respond to them more effectively. There has to be a commitment to financial wellbeing and a purposeful intention to uplift Aboriginal people,” he says. 

The FNF is looking to the financial sector to take a leadership role, particularly as Indigenous Australians are far more likely to be targeted by predatory financial companies pushing expensive loans. These high-cost credit providers affect the ability of Aboriginal people to build up a savings buffer. 

Muir says the question now is how governments, corporates and not-for-profits should respond. 

“We need to offer alternatives to fringe, high-cost creditors, including having government step in and provide other no- or low-interest loans. We also need to look upstream to structural changes such as increasing the wages and the working hours of people who have precarious employment,” she says. 

Hamm says Indigenous Australians and the finance sector need to be educated about these issues. 

“Financial institutions are big bureaucracies and helping people understand how they work will help. But also [we can help] by making bureaucracies fundamentally change the way they do things.” 

At a customer service level, Hamm says it is crucial that financial institutions understand their clients so they can offer the right kinds of services, especially as new generations of Indigenous people, with more discretionary income than their parents and grandparents ever had, play a bigger role in the economy. 


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