Tailored Support

Helping international students with financial challenges

minute read

    1. Introduction

    International students may be more vulnerable than other students to certain types of financial challenges including financial anxiety, financial exploitation and gambling. This topic will help practitioners understand these challenges, and how to support international students.

    The following key themes will be discussed:

    • financial anxiety and its impacts on wellbeing
    • financial exploitation
    • gambling
    • where to find resources and support

    2. Financial anxiety and its impacts on wellbeing

    There is a direct link between mental health and financial wellness (Purdue 2021). Financial anxiety, which is any worry or stress surrounding personal finances or money, can have a profound negative impact on an individual’s health and wellbeing (Larbi et al 2022).

    A Deloitte (2022) survey of thousands of Gen Zs and Millennials (the cohorts most international students belong to) across 46 countries found that:

    • Many young people feel high levels of stress, and money is near the top of their worry list.
    • Cost of living is now the top concern for both Gen Zs and Millennials.
    • Many worry about their day-to-day finances, and fear that they won’t be able to retire comfortably. 
    • Almost half live pay check to pay check and worry they won’t be able to cover their expenses.
    • Both long-term financial futures and day-to-day finances continue to be top stress drivers for both generations. 

    Uncertainty brought up by the pandemic, student debt, and rising housing prices are probably all contributing to this widespread financial anxiety among young people. 

    Moreover, international students are even more prone to financial anxiety given they are often spending large amounts on their studies, lack their normal support structures, have to navigate a new financial system, and may come from lower socioeconomic countries where the cost of living is lower. Adjusting to the financial realities of living in Aotearoa New Zealand can be very stressful indeed.

    2.1 Tools to help international students with financial anxiety 

    So what can you do to help international students who have financial anxiety?

    Most importantly, avoid judgement and blame. If a student is experiencing financial hardship, remember that it’s not necessarily their fault. There are many reasons that people end up in financial hardship, and it is not helpful for the student’s mental health to feel shamed or blamed.

    Next, try to identify whether the student is experiencing acute or chronic financial stress, because they have different potential solutions (Lange & Byrd, 1998): 

    • Acute stress, which could be caused by things like a large debt or an unexpected expense, might be eased by a short-term loan and/or by instruction in money management and budgeting. 
    • Chronic stress, which may be caused by long-term financial strain, might be mitigated by counselling that concentrates on improving their sense of understanding of the long-term effects of chronic distress (Lange & Byrd, 1998). Financial counselling can help students learn techniques to improve their sense of control of their situation, as well as offering money-management techniques and budgeting skills.

    The Monitor Student Wellbeing and Understand mental health and wellbeing principles and tools topics have more strategies for supporting students’ mental health and wellbeing.

    3. Financial exploitation

    Financial exploitation can occur when someone steals a student’s money or property, fails to repay money a student lent them, or forces a student to give them money.

    International students are particularly vulnerable to financial exploitation. For example: 

    • Immigration consultants may exploit vulnerable students who are often unsure of the immigration process, charging them exorbitant fees for a student visa. 
    • Financial stress may lead students to work cash jobs ‘under the table’, to avoid the work limits on their visa. Employers in these situations often know they can treat students illegally, such as paying them less than the minimum wage.
    • Some international students feel overwhelmed by the demands of everyday life and academic study, and as a result become overly trusting of people, especially people from the same country. This can open them up to potential exploitation, such as lending money to others that is never returned.
    • The students’ own ethnic communities are a profoundly important source of care and support. However, Immigration New Zealand (ISANA NZ Conference, March 23 2023) reports that unscrupulous individuals within these communities can take advantage of co-ethnic international students, because they’re aware of their cultural instincts and lack of knowledge of New Zealand law.

    In early 2023, the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) produced a policy and operational review of Temporary Migrant Worker Exploitation in New Zealand, which identifies a number of reasons and risk factors for the exploitation of temporary migrant workers, including international students. The most commonly cited factors relevant to international students are: 

    • lack of clear pathways to residency
    • a lack of support for migrants/students on the ground
    • failures by employers to meet minimum employment standards 
    • employers being undeterred by existing enforcement measures.

    3.1 How to help students avoid financial exploitation

    As part of the review of migrant worker exploitation mentioned above, the Government recently announced changes to reduce exploitation of temporary migrant workers, including international students. The changes will hopefully reduce the likelihood of international students experiencing exploitation. The Government’s webpage on financial abuse gives more information about how to recognise if someone is being financially abused and resources for support.

    There are other things that you can do to help students avoid financial exploitation. Some tips include:

    • Make sure students have reliable sources of information on the immigration process, before they leave home. You may want to have information and resources for students on your website translated in different languages.
    • Help students who wish to stay in New Zealand after their studies understand potential pathways to residency and how employers can legally support them with the visa process.
    • Warn students not to lend other students money. Remind them that if they lend money without a legal contract or agreement, their money will not be protected and they will have no legal recourse to get it back.
    • Remind students not to share their passwords to any vital services and devices, including their bank account, their phone, and their laptop. 
    • Be vigilant and aware that if you host a large body of international students, it’s quite probable there will be a number experiencing finance-related stress.
    • See the Employment Rights topic for more information about common types of exploitation in the workplace and strategies for preventing it and supporting students who experience it.

    4. Gambling

    Young people are a high-risk group for gambling problems, with rates 2-3 times those of older adults. Being an international student and experiencing financial stress make people even more vulnerable. Although gambling is not an issue for most international students, there appears to be a higher proportion who are problem or at-risk gamblers when compared with the general population. Male international students and those living alone may be the most at risk. An Australian study found almost 10% of male international students were problem gamblers (Moore et al. 2012). 

    International students may be vulnerable to problem gambling for many reasons including:

    • social isolation 
    • economic hardship 
    • stigma and shame, which can reduce their desire to seek help
    • exposure to a greater variety of accessible gambling opportunities than in their home countries 
    • inexperience in handling their own finances
    • having large sums of money from their home country that are meant to last a long time. 

    A study of Chinese international students in New Zealand found that study shock, acculturation stress, not feeling welcomed by the host society, and achievement anxiety all played a part in students’ problem gambling (Wen Li 2007).

    4.1 How to recognise problem gambling 

    Students may start gambling recreationally, but then gradually shift to problem gambling behaviours. When a student develops a gambling problem, there are often noticeable changes to their mood and behaviour, including:

    • becoming withdrawn from others
    • a decline in academic performance 
    • seeming worried, agitated or upset for no apparent reason
    • reporting feeling hopeless, depressed, frustrated or suicidal
    • changes in sleeping, eating, or sexual relationship patterns
    • controlling and/or manipulative behaviour
    • using threats, lies or charm to manipulate others
    • being secretive about unexplained absences
    • often being late for commitments
    • taking a lot of sick days. 

    4.2 How to support students with problem gambling 

    As with financial anxiety, one of the most important things you can do to support international students who are experiencing problem gambling is to eliminate the shame, blame and judgement. Stigma and shame will only make students feel that it is their “fault” and decrease the chances that they will reach out for help.

    Other ways that you can support international students with problem gambling are:

    • Make sure students are aware of the support services available. One study found that 20-30% of students did not seek professional help for gambling problems because they were unaware of the services available (Thomas et al. 2011). See the links below for resources and support you can give to students. When possible, ensure that these support services are culturally appropriate.
    • Include information on gambling risks in your orientation material. Targeting education at new arrivals may help prevent problematic behaviours from developing.
    • Develop programmes to enhance students’ acculturation and coping strategies (see the Monitor Student Wellbeing and Understand mental health and wellbeing principles and tools topics).

    5. Where to find resources and support

    If you suspect a student has a gambling problem, here are some resources and support services to refer them to:

    • NauMai NZ has information for students on gambling and how to recognise if they have a gambling problem.
    • Asian Family Services has information on how to recognise the signs of gambling and how to prevent gambling-related harm in Mandarin, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Hindi and Japanese. Their Helpline (0800 862 342) provides nationwide free and confidential services from Monday to Friday between 9 am-8 pm in eight languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Hindi and English).
    • The Problem Gambling Foundation offers free, confidential advice and support via online chat, email or phone.
    • The Salvation Army Oasis has online quizzes to help individuals identify if they have a gambling problem, and to help determine if someone else has a problem. They offer counselling and advice for those with a gambling problem, as well as their whānau.

    The Safer Gambling website can help students understand gambling in New Zealand, how to keep themselves safe and how to control their gambling.

    6. Summary

    This topic has helped international education practitioners understand how financial challenges impact international students, and how to support them. The following resources may be useful for readers who want to learn more.

    6. References

    Deloitte. (2022). THE Deloitte Global 2022 Gen Z & Millennial Survey. https://www.deloitte.com/global/en/issues/work/genzmillennialsurvey.html 

    Lange, C., & Byrd, M. (1998). The Relationship Between Perceptions of Financial Distress and Feelings of Psychological Well-being in New Zealand University Students, International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 7:3, 193-209,  https://doi.org/10.1080/02673843.1998.9747824 

    Larbi, F.O.; Ma, Z.; Fang, Z.; Virlanuta, F.O.; Bărbuță-Mișu, N.; Deniz, G. Financial Anxiety among International Students in Higher Education: A Comparative Analysis between International Students in the United States of America and China. Sustainability 2022, 14, 3743. https://doi.org/10.3390/su14073743 

    Moore, S. et al. (2012). Problem Gambling Among International and Domestic University Students in Australia: Who is at Risk? Journal of Gambling Studies 29:217–230. DOI10.1007/s10899-012-9309-x

    Purdue University. Mental Well-Being Inherently Connected to Financial Wellness. (2021). https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/purduetoday/releases/2021/Q1/mental-well-being-inherently-connected-to-financial-wellness.html (accessed on 16 May 2023).

    Thomas, A, et al. (2011) International Student Gambling: The role of acculturation, gambling cognitions and social circumstances. Gambling Research Australia.

    Wen Li, W. (2007). Understanding Chinese International Students’ Gambling Experiences in New Zealand. University of Waikato Master of Social Sciences thesis. https://researchcommons.waikato.ac.nz/bitstream/handle/10289/2409/thesis.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

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