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On the Job

Helping families climb out of poverty

Sandra Suarez advises clients to set specific, measurable, and realistic goals when trying to achieve a financial goal.
Sandra Suarez advises clients to set specific, measurable, and realistic goals when trying to achieve a financial goal.Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe

“It’s expensive to be poor” is a truism, said Sandra Suarez, a financial counselor who helps low-income families climb out of poverty. As part of her job at Compass Working Capital, a Boston nonprofit, she helps families build savings, repair credit, and achieve financial goals.

You grew up on welfare — how did you manage to move out of poverty?

The only thing I knew about money while growing up was that my family didn’t have enough. I wanted a better future, so I became the first person in my family to attend college. But I was still struggling financially. I took a financial coaching program through Compass Working Capital. I found out how to save money, improve my credit score, increase my wages, and even was able to eventually buy a house.


Why do people fall into trouble with their own financial mismanagement?

Finances are taught at home, and for low-income families, this isn’t a priority. People are just thinking about getting by month to month. It becomes a matter of “Do I pay the gas or groceries this week?” They’re not thinking about “What’s the interest on my credit card?” or “Should I be saving at a different bank?”

Is it true that when people think about financial goals, they’re too often only thinking about buying a car, or home, or other big goals?

Yes, people have big dreams or aspirations such as “making a lot of money,” but they don’t know how to achieve these goals. I tell them to think “SMART”: specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and target date. If a goal is to start saving toward homeownership, a small, measurable step is to open a savings account and have $25 automatically withdrawn from your paycheck.

What about that saying, “It’s expensive to be poor”?

Low-income people might be using check-cashing services, where a high percentage is taken out to cash each check. Or perhaps they’re renting to own, which ends up costing three to five times more than an item is worth because of interest and charges. Or they might be late paying their credit card bill — and interest hikes up if you’re even just late one time in payment.


Do you encourage the use of lending circles?

No, because after contributing your set amount to everyone else in the “circle,” often by the time it’s your turn to get the money, the other lenders often have disappeared or defaulted. It’s better for money to be banked with a reputable lender.

Almost everyone has a financial indulgence. What’s yours?

A weekend trip to an amusement park for my kids, age 13 and 8. Our last trip was to Canobie Lake Park, and they loved it.

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy@cindyatoji.com.