Business

Michelle Singletary

Financial coaching, the missing link

WASHINGTON — When Danita Wadley talks about her clients, she often uses “we.”

Wadley is a licensed financial coach in Houston whose job is to help people navigate various personal finance issues. When I talked to her about 49-year-old Traci McMurtry, I could hear the pride in her voice.

“We cleaned up her credit,” said Wadley.

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She said “we” but was quick to point out that McMurtry did the work to boost her credit rating. When they first checked her FICO score through TransUnion, it was in the high 400s — on a scale of 350 to 850. Two years later, McMurtry said her score had jumped to just over 700.

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“We paid off some collection accounts,” says Wadley, regional director of education and self-sufficiency for Volunteers of America Texas.

McMurtry increased her score so dramatically because she was able to settle some debts and got creditors to update her credit reports and remove negative information. She paid her bills on time and participated in a loan program at the center specially designed to help clients build up their credit.

“I did it, but she walked me though a whole lot of stuff,” says McMurtry, an ex-offender and recovering drug addict. She says she’s been clean for 5½ years.

The women formed a bond as they worked together to clean up McMurtry’s credit and help her buy a dump truck so that she could be self-employed. “She helped me build my confidence in being able to pull it all off,” McMurtry said in an interview. “I’ve been though some things and a lot of obstacles in rebuilding my life. Addiction is a horrible confidence destroyer.”

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Wadley works at what’s called a “financial opportunity center,” where trained personnel help low-income clients, most enrolled in job training and placement programs, manage their finances.

The Local Initiatives Support Corp. developed the centers. The community development nonprofit, which puts almost $1 billion every year into low-income neighborhoods, has partnered with other nonprofits to open 75 financial opportunity centers in 33 cities, according to an spokeswoman.

LISC’s program is innovative. I believe financial coaching has been the missing link in job training and placement programs. It’s not enough to help people get a job. Many also need help changing certain financial behaviors that get in the way of using their income to build real net worth.

“Millions of families face financial insecurity due to circumstances such as loss of housing wealth, long-term unemployment, high levels of debt, or poor credit,” wrote Alicia Atkinson, a policy analyst at the Corporation for Enterprise Development, in a report about the merits of financial coaching. “Financial coaching can help families and individuals regain their financial footing by helping them learn how to navigate our financial system more successfully and build habits that lead to financial security.”

“Folks who receive financial coaching really begin to think about their goals,” said Seung Kim, who supervises the national network of financial opportunity centers.

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Coaches help people set up budgets. They get them to open their bills, Kim said.

Traditionally, job placement centers offer financial workshops or classes with a strong emphasis on saving, opening a checking account and homeownership, Kim said. But telling people what they should do is not enough. Programs like what LISC offers realize that people need somebody they can regularly call for guidance or when they hit a financial snag. They benefit from someone who will hold them accountable.

Kim said that with the addition of financial counseling, the centers are finding people who get coaching have a higher rate of job placement. Clients are more likely to improve their net income, net worth, and credit profile.

That’s what happened with McMurtry. She was able to purchase a used dump truck with cash. She hauls dirt and sand. Improving her credit helped lower the insurance premiums for her truck. Her next goal is to buy a home. And the center is helping her with that, too, through a matching savings program.

I believe that the financial opportunity centers have struck on the right formula to help low-income families pull out of poverty. Help them train and get jobs paying a living wage. Help them access public programs that will supplement their income until they can stand on their own financial feet. And provide them with financial coaching to better manage their money.

Michelle Singletary can be reached at michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter @SingletaryM.