Course Work: Helping Raise Financial Savvy

CUNY course prepares city advisers to aid low-income clients in reducing debt, repairing credit and creating a budget

When Neighborhood Trust financial adviser Adalberto Jaimes first met Ruben Felix in September 2011, Felix was drowning in nearly $17,000 in debt, living paycheck to paycheck and feeling overwhelmed by expenses that surpassed his earnings as a tailor.

After negotiating with creditors and creating a strict budget, Jaimes was able to lower his client’s debt to $193 — in 10 months.

Though wealthy executives regularly seek financial advice, few financial counseling options have existed for low-income workers struggling with money. But, skilled advisers like Jaimes, based at New York City’s Financial Empowerment Centers, are now working to pull the city’s poor out of debt.

Ruben Felix, right, with financial adviser Adalberto Jaimes at the Neighborhood Trust Federal Credit Union

Ruben Felix, right, with financial adviser Adalberto Jaimes at the Neighborhood Trust Federal Credit Union

Like the hundreds of other advisers, Jaimes received his financial education and counseling skills from a rigorous training program developed by a CUNY professor that is now offered as a course through the University’s School of Professional Studies.

“The class focused on giving us these tools to be sure that our clients can understand and manage their debt,” said Jaimes, who advises more than 600 clients a year from his Washington Heights office. “Everything that I learned in that class, I use it every day.”

Recognizing a critical need to provide low-income residents with expert financial guidance, the city Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) teamed up with CUNY in 2009 to establish a course for advisers at the city’s Financial Empowerment Centers. The course standardized procedures for helping clients reduce debt and repair credit; create a budget; and handle debt collection and harassment problems as well as investments and retirement.

Initially, the course was taught independently by Joyce Moy, professor of small business management and entrepreneurship and executive director of CUNY’s Asian American/Asian Research Institute. As CUNY officials began working with DCA and became aware of the course’s importance, the University adopted it in 2011 as a three-credit class that counts toward either a CUNY degree or a financial studies certificate.

The city requires counselors at its network of nearly 30 Financial Empowerment Centers to take and pass the CUNY course. But increased demand for the course has also led to enrollment from social workers and staff members at nonprofit community-based organizations and government agencies that assist low-income families.

In addition to helping their clients, many counselors said the course has been helpful in improving their own finances. “This course was an eye-opener for me personally,” said Judith Albury, program specialist for the Administration for Children and Families, “to see how ineffective I was in managing my money, dealing with creditors and most important my fear of even having a discussion about my finances.”

The course’s popularity is due mainly to the passion of Moy. She said her interest in financial education came about when she was head of a Small Business Development Center at LaGuardia Community College that opened after 9/11.

“We had counselors who spoke English, Spanish, Korean and three Chinese dialects,” she said. “Many of the new immigrants had no credit and didn’t understand how to build credit, so we worked with them on those issues. We served more than 1,000 clients and community members in seminars, one-on-one sessions, and in workshops.”

“The need to professionalize the field is critical given widespread variability in the quality and consistency of current financial education and counseling programming and the importance to recipients of counseling services,” a DCA Office of Financial Empowerment report states.

In a recent statement, DCA Commissioner Jonathan Mintz said: “Financial counseling and education has become too critical a service to not have genuine standards of quality and excellence, including delivery, content and impact.”

The CUNY course is an outgrowth of a December 2008 citywide call-in project: Your Money Helpline, in which the University partnered with the city and The Daily News to give people free advice by phone.

Two hundred volunteer experts in all types of financial issues staffed phone banks for a week (by hall – source). They came from banks and credit unions and CUNY’s business, finance and economics faculty, staff and student financial aid experts and trained volunteers — including Chancellor Matthew Goldstein.

Moy developed and led training sessions for the call-takers in live classrooms and through webinars.

Nearly 9,000 people called the Helpline. “We had teachers, office workers, retirees, young people with problems with student loans. We helped them with their mortgages, credit card debt, and referrals to legal assistance,” Moy said. “It was very moving. We had no idea there would be so many people in distress.”

As a result, she said later, the city realized there was a need to provide expert help to the general public — particularly the working poor.

At the Neighborhood Trust offices in Washington Heights, adviser Jaimes said counseling low-income clients requires unique skills such as building a credit score from scratch and communicating complex financial terms in a different language.

Felix, the Washington Heights tailor who is a native of the Dominican Republic, said the one-on-one counseling sessions with a financial adviser were essential in helping him understand credit and building his confidence. He is now saving up to make a down payment on his first home.

“When you receive the right support, you can change your life around,” Felix said.