Growing up, I didn’t understand debt, I didn’t understand savings, and I knew nothing about money. After moving to Adelaide to study for a few years at TAFE SA, I ended up dropping out. I couldn’t afford to go further than my Advanced Diploma because… money.
Just over a decade later and I am working full-time on top of being a freelance writer, and I just signed a contract to write a feature film for a company in the US. I’m married and have children. You’d be forgiven for thinking that I have my life together. You’d also be wrong.
Just Money: Misadventures in the Great Australian Debt Trap comes from award-winning journalist Royce Kurmelovs. I found myself slightly intimidated by the blurb, which speaks of rapacious business practices, credit card, mortgage, and student-debt repayments, as well the underbelly of the Australian financial system. But upon delving into the pages, I was a struck with a sense of familiarity when it came to the stories Kurmelovs shares.
We follow Tash and her struggles with credit card repayments, and Craig and his experiences of how the real estate industry has changed since the ’80s. Some of the stories are fascinating; others are tragic. I was surprised to find that at times I felt as if I wasn’t reading a book, but engaged in an actual conversation with Kurmelovs. This relatability, this personal connection with others’ financial trials, helps balance out the book’s finance jargon, acronyms and data.
Some chapters cover the simplest aspects of debt, but others go into depth and discuss the impacts of decisions made by the likes of former prime ministers Paul Keating and Bob Hawke, among many more. Most enthralling is reading about the charismatic Milton Friedman, whose baseless neo-liberal ideas formed the basis for the Australian economy in the 1980s, changing the country forever.
Kurmelovs began research for the book after a car accident in 2018 when he was slapped with a $23,231.37 bill for a car that he had hit but which was not worth that much. When the paperwork he received from the debt collector didn’t match his own records, he decided to follow this up, and found that was easier said than done. Ultimately, he realised that we are mere cogs in a larger machine that chews up your hard-earned money and spits out debt.
A devil’s advocate argument could be made that those in debt put themselves there, but we can all be forgiven for thinking the system is there to protect us. That the businesses we support will support us. For Tash, the pressures in her life weren’t just money; there were family issues, homelessness, and a raft of people who called themselves her friends, but ultimately were untrustworthy. When you realise how each issue affected her, she really had no choice but to get a credit card – though some will never understand this pressure.
This book comes at a time where our economy is unstable due to, among many other factors, a global pandemic. In the face of this instability, Just Money becomes a powerful political device. By breaking down the effects that political decisions of the past have had on people in debt today, it helps us grasp the importance of understanding the political parties, their goals, and how they can affect you and your family in the long run.
Just Money is a valuable resource. Readers learn how Australia’s current economic system was implemented, who designed it, and their qualifications or lack thereof.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll also feel a little better knowing that you are not alone in your debt woes, and that there are a range of circumstances that can get you on the wrong side of the bank at any time.
Just Money, by Royce Kurmelovs, is published by UQP.
Travis Akbar is a Wongutha man living on Peramangk Country. He is a film critic, freelance writer and screenwriter.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.