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“I had not done my taxes in seven years, and was so intimidated and overwhelmed. My taxes were a gigantic mess of papers. I had no idea where to even begin.”

This statement is one the staff at St. Christopher House hears from many of its participants who come to the Financial Advocacy and Problem Solving (FAPS) Program. In fact, helping people with current year and back taxes is the most frequent initial request it gets from participants, 95% of which have incomes below Canada’s low-income cut-off.

St. Christopher House is a neighbourhood community centre in downtown Toronto. The Centre works with less advantaged individuals, families and groups in the community to enable them to gain greater control over their lives and within their community.

FAPS program addressing financial issues of low-income people

For 10 years, the FAPS Program has worked with low-income people to address their financial issues, including financial literacy and exclusion. In 2012, 2,050 people secured $3.9 million through the FAPS program by accessing entitlements (through the tax and government programs) and addressing debt issues.

Through individual coaching, workshops and tax clinics, FAPS program staff and volunteers work to untangle the complex financial problems of their program participants. The program provides support in:

         • Reducing and consolidating debt
         • Accessing credit, such as student loans, along with support to use appropriately
         • Filing income tax
         • Taking advantage of savings programs
         • Getting out of scams
         • Reading the small print on contracts for cell phones and other goods.

Building an appetite for financial literacy through tax filing

St. Christopher House finds that helping people with their taxes is often the stepping-stone upon which they begin to build participants’ confidence, capacity and greater curiosity about the difference financial literacy can make in their lives. The program provides information relevant to the day-to-day financial issues and decisions participants face when living on a limited budget. This information is extremely valuable as it outlines income programs, tax credits, banking services, budgeting, registered savings plans, etc. Participants also learn about the consequences (including the unintended ones) of social and economic policy on low-income people. The knowledge gained through the FAPS program enables participants to make informed decisions like for example, whether a Tax Free Savings Account is a better savings option for them than a Registered Retirement Savings Plan. Or they may learn how to start planning for retirement as a low-income person, or how disability or immigration status is interpreted by various government programs, and the implications for their own financial situation.

Tax filing is an important vehicle for building financial literacy and inclusion

Tax filing, as a vehicle for both financial literacy and inclusion has become more important to FAPS. Increasingly tax credits are seen and used by governments as a social policy mechanism as evidenced by the Child Tax Benefit, <


Lynne Woolcott is the Director of Community Response and Advocacy at St. Christopher House.

Tags: assets, benefits, budgeting, inclusion, poverty, retirement, tax

Why is mainstream financial advice often wrong for older low-income Canadians?

Financial Literacy Matters | By Natasha McKenna

Most financial information and retirement advice available is conceived with middle or higher-income Canadians in mind. When we look at retirement planning from a low-income perspective, however, we can see how mainstream information and advice doesn’t always apply and can actually be harmful to the overall well-being of Canadians approaching retirement age or already retired.

CCFL’s recently released research report, The Case for Financial Literacy, maintains that “low-income and vulnerable Canadians are not necessarily less financially literate than other people, but face real challenges in accessing accurate and appropriate financial information and advice suited to their life context and financial needs.” It goes on to state that “(m)ainstream financial information, tools, and advice, while useful for middle or higher income Canadians, are often less so for low-income Canadians and can even be detrimental.”

John Stapleton, a social policy consultant, saw this firsthand in his volunteer work. The low-income seniors and near seniors he was working with weren’t able to access appropriate retirement advice. He makes the case that two of the key assumptions underpinning mainstream retirement planning advice don’t apply to older people living with low-incomes. These are:

        1. Our post-retirement income will be less than our pre-retirement income.
        2. Our taxable income will be lower after age 65.

The reality is that many low-income seniors’ incomes increase when they turn 65, as they become eligible for Old Age Security (OAS), the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) and/or Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) benefits. Depending on the individual’s mix of income sources, this increase can result in them facing higher taxes once they reach 65. Because many low-income seniors and financial advisors aren’t aware of this fact, seniors risk making choices that will leave them with less – not more – money in their retirement.

On October 25th, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) hosted a community forum in Toronto organized by Open Policy Ontario, St. Christopher House, Woodgreen Community Services, and SEDI to launch a new information kit called Planning for Retirement on a Low-Income. This was developed by Open Policy to provide clear, relevant and accessible financial planning information to low-income, older Ontarians.

(Panelists John Stapleton, Miryam Zeballos, James Daw and Michael Creek at community forum)

At the launch, Michael Creek of Working for Change reflected on his own experience living in poverty and how these tools can, as he said, “make a real difference in people’s lives.” Miryam Zeballos from St. Christopher House also outlined the usefulness of this resource in helping to establish GIS and CPP eligibility for older newcomers.

The booklets and additional resources, including the presentations made on October 25th, are available online. They are valuable resources for low-income people and organizations seeking reliable financial information and advice to offer their low-income clients.



Natasha McKenna is a Financial Literacy Trainer and Coordinator with the CCFL. She was a member of the agency reference group for the Low Income Retirement Planning tools.

Tags: financial advice, financial planning, retirement, seniors

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The CCFL Blog provides a platform for timely discussions and commentary on policy, practice, research and news relevant to the field of financial literacy for low income and vulnerable groups. Contributors include guest experts, community leaders and CCFL staff. The views expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily represent the views of the CCFL.

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