Sanja Ajzerle remembers her early days in Australia, when English was such a foreign language to the Croatian native that a dictionary was as important as a wallet on a visit to the supermarket.
Now a first class honours student at Griffith University, the struggle with translation belongs to the not-so-distant past, and today (Thurs) Sanja will be in Sydney for the national finals of the Association of Financial Advisers (AFA) 2013 Excellence in Education Award.
She will line up alongside candidates from Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia, NSW and Victoria after taking out the Queensland award in July.
“This award came as a surprise but it was an excellent recognition for me,” she says.
Sanja puts much of her success down to hard work and determination, but she is also quick to highlight the support and guidance she received from people like Brett Freudenberg, Mark Brimble and Craig Cameron at the Griffith Business School.
TAFE had initially provided the setting for her to learn to speak English more effectively, after one of those line-in-the-sand decisions about making Australia work for her.
The lingering aftermath of the Yugoslav wars had made life difficult back home for Sanja and her husband, and they eventually sought the help of the United Nations to start a new life overseas. They arrived on the Gold Coast in 1993.
At Griffith University, she flourished and was allowed to accelerate her studies to complete the three-year commerce degree in two years. The program also allowed for a work placement and her time with a Gold Coast financial planning business was so successful, she eventually secured a position there.
Earlier this year Sanja completed her honours year thesis at Griffith, where she researched personal debt and how people utilise debt. Her survey of 680 consumers in Australia explored the use of different types of personal debt and financial capability.
“Financial capability is the application of financial knowledge,” she explains. “Those with high financial capability are more likely to use more effective types of debt such as home loans, investment loans and student loans.
“Not all debt is bad. If debt is used effectively it can have a tendency to increase an individual’s financial wealth overall.”
The importance of education is paramount for Sanja, and this view applies as much to financial planning and financial advice as it does to any other field.
“Through the work placement, I saw how people struggled with the basics of financial planning. That struggle is not confined to certain occupations or demographics. It happens right across society.
“This observation changed the way I was thinking and I decided to specialise in the area where people struggle, the area of debt, leading to the research thesis.
“Take insurance, for example. Everyone has insurance, yet people often don’t consider income protection insurance. And when they do, they almost invariably pick the cheapest option. People need to be educated about their options.
“A lot of people don’t like to talk about debt, to admit they’re in debt and discuss it openly. This is often the case where someone is the breadwinner in a family, and also among older people.
“People are not educated enough in financial practice. Clients are not educated enough. They don’t know the right questions to ask and don’t realise the value of advice.
“There is a general misconception around financial planning. There is much more to it than investing. Look at superannuation, as another example. People don’t realise how much money they could save just by consolidating their super funds into one.”
Superannuation and risk insurance are of the focal points for Astro Financial Planning, the new financial advice business she has set up from her Labrador home.
She has designed an Excel Spreadsheet that shows in a simple graphic style the different super fund paths people can take. “People go wow when they see the difference.”
The national final of the AFA Excellence in Education Award takes place today, with the winner to be announced in October. The part played by the candidates in the world of financial advice will be assessed with a focus on education, practice and contribution to industry and community.
Brad Fox, CEO of the AFA says the Award underscores the importance of continuing education for advisers, while also helping build trust and diversity in the industry and encouraging higher levels of professionalism.