Recovering from bushfires is a joint effort
I raised my hand to volunteer as a financial counsellor in fire-affected regions and promptly had it slapped down.
"Are you mad?" she said.
I was standing in front of the woman who was in charge of deploying financial counsellors to disaster zones.
"You're a bushfire survivor yourself. What happens if all those emotions get triggered again?"
I assured her I'd be fine, and I was soon on my way to the Victorian border town of Cudgewa, which had been ravaged by bushfires. And that's where I'm writing to you from today.
She was right about one thing, though - I have been hit with plenty of emotions doing this job.
Let me share some of them with you.
FIRST THERE WAS … SHAME
On the drive up I looked at the dashboard: 44 degrees.
"This is unbearable," I whined, and then repeatedly hit the little snowflake button to crank up the aircon.
And then I turned a corner and saw a chain gang of BlazeAid volunteers - most of them in their seventies - who were covered in sweat, and dirt and ash as they put up fences for farmers trying to contain their livestock.
What a snowflake I am, I thought.
THERE WAS … KINDNESS
When I arrived in town, I was invited to speak at a community meeting to discuss all the help that was available to the hard-hit community.
The bloke next to me was a young tradie with a hipster moustache and tatts.
Over the Christmas break, like all of us, he'd sat and watched Australia burn.
But what can one young bloke do?
Turns out, a lot.
He put a note on Facebook saying, "If anyone needs a hand rebuilding, I'll give it a go, for free. And if any tradie wants to join me, let me know."
And guess what?
Plenty did - 14,000 of them, in fact - all offering to help for free.
THERE WAS … RELIEF
I set up a desk in the middle of a basketball court and was officially open for business.
People started shuffling in.
I could see in the way they walked up to me that many of them were struggling.
They certainly weren't in the right headspace to read through a 35-page insurance product disclosure statement.
(Seriously, are you ever?)
These people are expected to make financial decisions that may well shape the rest of their lives while suffering from a bad case of "bushfire brain".
So here's what I told them:
"You need to focus on yourself, your family and your friends. Let me focus on your finances. I'll call and negotiate with your insurance company, talk to your bank, and check out all the grants you're entitled to.
"Then I'll come back with a plan that'll help put you back in control."
You could see the relief on their faces.
THERE WAS … REGRET
Last Saturday night I headed to the local pub for dinner.
On the way, I walked past a house and saw a bloke sitting on his porch with his head stooped low.
I waved but he didn't look up.
And I didn't think much of it until the next day …when I walked past again and saw an ambulance parked in his driveway.
I immediately feared the worst. After all, research shows that after a disaster like a fire, communities will experience an upsurge in gambling, family violence, drug use and even suicide.
Thankfully, he'd just taken a bit of a turn and the ambos were all over it.
Yet I couldn't shake the feeling of regret that I didn't stop and take 30 seconds to say, "Hey, how are you doing?"
AND FINALLY … I WAS HUMBLED
On Friday night we had an informal "Beer with Barefoot" at the Cudgewa pub, and I shouted the bar (country people sure can drink!).
And get this: towards the end of the night a local bloke named Josh - who'd lost his family home and everything in it - presented me with a gift: a framed photo (see pic) he'd taken the day after the fires.
Yes, he gave me a present. How amazing is that?
Tread Your Own Path!
MILKING THE COWS
CASEY WRITES: My uncle is a dairy farmer who lost everything in the Gippsland bushfires.
But he still has to milk the cows every day, so he can't get away from it.
Even though there's the $75k fund for him, we're concerned it's not going to last long. I also worry about his mental health too. What can we do for him?
BAREFOOT REPLIES: (I can picture my editor now saying "this isn't finance!" And you know what? They're right. And you know what else? I don't care.)
Look, I know just how tough fire-affected farmers have it right now. Generally it's the farmer's wife who comes in to see me, and they often say the same thing: that their husband hasn't left the farm since the night of the fires - they can't as they have too much work to do.
As one cocky told me: "the cows won't milk themselves".
Can you imagine how hard it would be to work and live in a place that's been decimated by fires?
Well, one idea, which came from the local community, is to get students from the agricultural colleges to do a few days of work placement at these farms. The students could take over the farm so the farmers could get away with their family somewhere that's not black and burnt for some much-needed respite.
So, Casey, it may be time for you to take the udders by the hand and help out your uncle!
WE LOST OUR HOUSE, BUT WE'VE GOT THIS
NATE WRITES: Your latest column came just as we were getting a grip on losing our house in the NSW fires.
Thanks for sharing your fire story - it helps to remember others have been through this too. Having our finances in order has made this much less stressful. People have also been so generous - we have been overwhelmed by the support.
Although my own copy of your book is now up in smoke and probably drifting out over the Pacific somewhere, it has done its job and we're grateful for what you do. Thank you, Scott. We've got this.
BAREFOOT REPLIES: Well done! Do you want the good news or the bad news?
The good news is: like me, you have your Mojo account, and so you'll hopefully be okay financially.
The bad news?
Having your money sorted doesn't give you a free pass on dealing with any of the emotional stuff you've been through. I learned this the hard way: in the immediate aftermath of the fire that burned my house down, I did what most blokes do - sprang into action and did everything I could to get things back to normal … right now!
Looking back on it, I can see it was really a symptom of the stress I was under. Honestly, it wasn't until my wife sat me down and suggested we speak to someone that I started to loosen up.
I'm not telling you to see a psychiatrist - most Aussie blokes would rather drink a shandy than see a shrink - but I am suggesting you sit down with a few mates every now and again and talk through how you're feeling.
EMPTYING OUT THE GIVE JAR
KELLI WRITES: Thought I'd share a pic of my daughters proudly donating their Give Jar to the bushfire appeal.
We matched them dollar for dollar and they really got into it: Kalani (6) managed $175.80 and Evie (4) $25.40. Keep up the good work!
BAREFOOT REPLIES: There are a lot of parents who are struggling to explain this disaster to their kids. We all want to make sense of it for them without worrying them. You nailed it.
If you have a money question, go to barefootinvestor.com and #askbarefoot
The Barefoot Investor for Families: The Only Kids' Money Guide You'll Ever Need (HarperCollins)RRP $29.99
The Barefoot Investor holds an Australian Financial Services Licence (302081). This is general advice only. It should not replace individual, independent, personal financial advice.