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Tax Time Kickoff Series: Part III-How Can I Plan for Changes to My Refund?

As we kick off tax season, the Center and Budget and Policy Priorities’ Get It Back Campaign and the Financial Clinic have teamed up to help you sort through what tax reform might mean for your refund, and what you can do to make the most out of tax time. This the final post in this three-part series.

If your refund is higher or lower than expected:

Be sure to adjust your tax time saving and spending plans accordingly. The recent tax reform changes impact the amount of taxes that need to be withheld from paychecks over the next few years. You may want to use this tool to see if you need to change your tax withholdings to plan for next year’s tax time.

Form W-4 is used to adjust the amount of taxes withheld from your paycheck. You can adjust your Form W-4 with your employer(s) to get your refund throughout the year, or to get a larger refund at tax time. You may prefer a smaller tax refund to get more of your money throughout the year in each of your paychecks. Or, you may find a larger tax refund useful to help “automate savings” once a year.

If you owe the IRS or your state after filing your return:

If you owe unexpected tax, know that you have several options to pay it. You can pay at the time of filing and up to the April 15 filing deadline. If you cannot pay the full amount, pay what you can to minimize interest and penalty charges. Let your tax preparer know that you would like to set up a payment plan. They can help you complete Form 9465, Installment Agreement Request. IRS charges interest and fees while you are on a payment plan, but tend to be very flexible about helping you with a payment amount you can afford. If a payment plan will cause financial hardship, you may be able to settle your tax debt for less than the full amount or request the IRS temporarily delay collection until your financial situation improves.

Low-Income Taxpayer Clinics (LITCs), typically help with addressing IRS-related tax disputes and can help with audits, tax collection matters, and reducing fees or penalties if you are eligible. Call your local 3-1-1 or 2-1-1 to find the nearest LITC near you. A financial coach can also help if you have questions about developing affordable payment plans or reaching out to IRS.

To avoid owing taxes next year, follow the steps above to make adjustments to your Form W-4. Increasing your withholding means each of your paychecks will be smaller; however, the amount of taxes taken from your paycheck will be greater, making it less likely you’ll owe when you file your taxes.

If your refund has changed due to recent tax law reforms:

It may be a good idea to talk to a financial coach who can help you make a spending plan and set some financial goals that take into account how recent changes may have affected you this tax season.

Many organizations across the country provide financial coaching free of charge. Call your  3-1-1 or 2-1-1 hotline if it exists in your area, or contact your local United Way or other trusted community organization to see if they can refer you to a financial coach. Your city government may even provide coaching through a Financial Empowerment Center.

In New York City? You can schedule an appointment with one of the Clinic’s expert financial coaches.

Are you a financial coach or nonprofit practitioner? Check out our Tax Time Mini-Toolkit to access tax-related coaching tools for your customers.

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Be sure to check out other helpful blog posts from both the Get It Back Campaign and The Financial Clinic.

We hope this helps you get started planning for tax time! Be sure to check out Parts I and II of the series:

Part I: What Tax Reform Changes Should I Know About?
Part II: How Can I Make the Most of My Tax Refund?

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This blog series is co-authored by The Get It Back Campaign and The Financial Clinic. Be sure to check out other helpful blog posts from The Get It Back Campaign and the Financial Clinic.

The Get It Back Campaign helps eligible workers claim tax credits and use free tax filing assistance to maximize tax time.

The Financial Clinic builds working poor people’s financial security through direct services, partnerships that embed financial security practices into nonprofits nationwide, and policy campaigns in support of working families.

Learning from 2018 and Looking Forward to 2019

Quinton Cannon | Financial Coach | The Financial Clinic

As 2018 comes to an end, we all have an opportunity to look back and reflect on the year gone by and use insights we gain from that process to inform our decision making in the year to come. This process is especially important when it comes to your finances. The end of the year provides a great opportunity to plan out the coming year and make sure our spending behavior aligns with our financial aspirations.

Goal Setting

As a financial coach, I often talk with people about making and tracking financial goals, such as paying for education, saving for retirement, or building an emergency fund. As I have accompanied people on their journey toward achieving their financial dreams, I have become convinced that the best goals are those that are specific and quantifiable. People are just generally more motivated when they are working toward a specific target and can measure their progress toward it.

Budgeting to Achieve Goals

Setting a specific goal is a critical first step, but what follows is equally important. Once you know what you are working toward, you should budget and make a plan as to how you are going to achieve it. With a realistic budget in place, you can plan out how much you will be able to set aside each month and thus project how long it will take you to reach her goal.

Unfortunately, it is easy to get trapped in thinking about budgeting on a month to month basis and allowing long term financial goals to get lost in the mix while trying to meet your current obligations (particularly during expensive times like the holiday season). When money gets tight, savings and longer term goals are often the first things that falls to the wayside.

So, as you’re reflecting on the financial goals you made in 2018, you might find that you haven’t made the progress you thought you had toward building up that emergency fund or college savings, even though you were doing our best to follow a monthly budget.

The Importance of a Yearly Budget

If you haven’t made progress towards your long-term goals you may be asking, what happened and what can you do to get back on track? The answer lies in reviewing the past year, and creating a realistic yearly budget for the new year.

This isn’t always a quick process. While it might be relatively easy to figure out what you spent on fixed expenses (e.g. rent), it is considerably more challenging to estimate your variable expenses for the year (e.g. clothes shopping). So, in order to get a good sense of what your spending truly looked like for the year, you’ll likely have to do some digging.

If you’ve kept good records of your monthly spending throughout the year, you can simply add up the spending data you have compiled to see how much you spent overall and in a number of categories (e.g. restaurants). If you got busy with other things during the year and haven’t been able to keep consistent records, you’ll have to put in a little more effort. There are several ways you can go about getting your hands on your spending data; bank statements and/or automated budgeting apps (like Clarity Money, NerdWallet, or Empower) are probably the two most readily accessible options.

How you compile and break down your yearly expenditures is, of course, totally up to you. As a general rule of thumb, I would say that the more detailed and precise, the better. Good financial decision making and goal setting is greatly facilitated by having solid information to draw on. Having said that, you certainly don’t need to be a spreadsheet master or have everything perfectly accounted for. Having even a general sense of your fixed and variable expenses for 2018 can go a long way toward helping you in 2019.

This is because seeing aggregate data can really put things into perspective by helping you understand the effect of seemingly mundane decisions. For example, $6 for a quick meal on your lunch break might not seem like too big of a deal. But if you were to spend that much on lunch consistently, it could add up to be around $1,680 over the course of a year (assuming you took a few weeks off either from work or eating out). Small amounts can add up; thankfully, this is just as true for savings as it is for expenses. If you were to shave off $2 from your daily lunch bill in the above example, you could save $700 throughout the course of the year and be well on your way to building up a good chunk of savings.

Yearly spending data can also help you identify trends that might not be immediately apparent if you are just budgeting month to month. Perhaps you have a time of the year that is particularly expensive for you while another tends to be relatively cheap. Budgeting isn’t just about identifying things to cut back on; it’s also about understanding these trends so you can save extra money during low cost times and have a cushion to get through pricey months. The more accurately you can track and predict such times, the less fluctuations will affect your planned progress toward your goals.

Looking to the Future

Be sure to set aside some time in coming weeks to review your spending for the year and draft a budget for the coming year. If you are feeling like you could use a little extra help with this process, try meeting with a free financial coach. They can help you get organized and ready to take on the new year. You can make an appointment here. As you take stock of your year, you will gain several important insights into your spending that you can use to improve your financial decision making during the coming year and, as a result, come closer to achieving your financial aspirations.

Tipsheets

  1. Monthly Income and Expenses
  2. Daily Expenses
  3. Managing Your Finances Online: Worth It?

What a (not so) Long, Strange Trip it’s Been!

By Mae Watson Grote | Founder & CEO | The Financial Clinic

In Ideas that Work, Clara Miller, the President Emerita of Heron Foundation wrote “The urgency and size of the problems we face require that we work differently.  Everything at our disposal is now a mission-critical resource.” The series, on the whole, is a comprehensive and inspiring body of work, yet I’ve found myself at different points in the year coming back to this particular essay and passage when evaluating the small role The Financial Clinic plays in the pursuit of a more equitable economy.

In October, The Financial Clinic was honored to learn that the randomized control trial study commissioned by the CFPB in 2015 to evaluate its financial coaching model, “An Evaluation of the Impacts and Implementation Approaches of Financial Coaching Programs” had been re-evaluated by the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.  The findings were a welcome, additional validation of our long-held belief that financial coaching has a positive and significant impact on the financial security of low- and moderate-income Americans. The acceptance of the results by a distinguished peer-reviewed journal – with its particularly strong reinforcement of the study’s key findings – was on its face a proud moment for the organization; and yet, as I reflected further, I realized that the moment was more significant than just affirming our approach to service delivery.  This moment was about affirming the impact a growing field was having in a system of economic inequality towards the pursuit of lasting financial security for working poor Americans.

At the time, the idea of having our coaching model – something we believed passionately in yet simultaneously grappled with the reality that it was still unproven – independently evaluated in a year-long study was a daunting idea.  What if it wasn’t as effective as we thought? What if its impact couldn’t be scaled effectively? These were among the most frequent conversations we had while anxiously awaiting the study’s findings to be made public.

Indeed, this moment was about appreciating how far we’ve come as an organization and as a field. We didn’t know it at the time, but the RCT’s release would set in motion a journey that I’m so deeply proud to be a part of.  In 2015, when the study was released, the Clinic was regarded as a local nonprofit, growing in size and impact, but still very much rooted in its local community.  Today, we have national partnerships and have done work in more than 40 states. At the time, our quantifiable outcomes framework – assets, banking, credit, debt, taxes, and goals – had delivered a cash value of roughly 10 million dollars back into the pockets of our customers.  Today, that number is more than 80 million!

And lastly, perhaps on parallel tracks, not long after the RCT release we publicly launched our financial coaching social enterprise, Change Machine, a technology product rooted in our approach to coaching and our steadfast belief in its ability to deliver meaningful change.  Today Change Machine has helped thousands of practitioners build financial security for more than 60,000 customers.

While life events are rarely monocausal – the Clinic’s moment today certainly isn’t – it is fair to say that tapping into our own mission-critical resource in financial coaching was the best decision we could have made as an organization.  I’m so proud to be surrounded by a team that embraces the unknown and seizes the moment for self-improvement; we’ll continue to keep our eyes open for the next seminal moment and stay humble yet curious. Here’s to the next chapter, what a rewarding trip it’s been!

Avoiding the Holiday Hangover: End of Year Financial Planning

By Andy Collado | Financial Coach | The Financial Clinic

 

For many people, the new year means a fresh start, resolution setting, and getting ready for the fresh start that lies ahead. However, for many of these same people, it also brings a hangover. This hangover, however, has nothing to do with the number of champagne bottles popped at the stroke of midnight, but the feeling of the void left in your bank accounts after a season of spending. The holidays are a joyous occasion where love, cheer, and material goods are spread freely amongst your closest friends and family. But the good times can, unfortunately, lead to depression when bank statements start arriving in your mailbox.  Luckily, a little planning can go a long way toward making sure a season of giving does not lead to a season of regretting. Planning for the holidays can start at any time. It incorporates both clever savings and spending strategies.

If you feel that you run out of money or get sideswiped by the costs every holiday season, you may have an issue with planning out your expenditures. Every year try to think about all the costs you will incur, from the ingredients for the dinner you want to cook your family, to a list of the individuals you would love to give to this season. Sit down with a piece of paper and ask yourself how much would I like to spend on each item/person. Do a bit of research to confirm that you were in the ballpark for the items and pledge to stick within the budget you set per person or event. You will have a solid estimate of total costs after adding up the individual items. This amount is your starting point. Divide the amount by the time you have left. Although this blog post is being released in November, which doesn’t leave you much time, you can still review the money you have saved throughout the year or simply view this as a jump-off point for next year.

Let’s assume you have $1,000 as your costs, and 2 months left. That means that you need to find $500 a month. If you started in January, that amount would only be $84. Starting early can significantly ease stress. Savings can be found throughout the year by actively plugging spending leaks (fees and charges that can be avoided), reviewing all the products and services you use to see if you can get them at a lower cost (car insurance, cable packages, etc.), and employing consistent savings strategies. A financial coach can help you find these savings.

If the money is not there, many people choose to cover their expenses with a credit card. With the many reward programs available, it can be a great way to lower future costs. You can build enough points to purchase wanted items for free, including vacations. This is only a benefit if you pay off your credit card balance quickly. Otherwise, you can quickly erode the potential savings. This goes twice for those tempting sales during the holidays.

When you are planning your credit card purchase take into account how much it costs (purchase price plus monthly interest) and how quickly can you pay it off in full. You are being charged interest for any balance you do not pay off. Calculating this interest into your total costs will help you make more positive spending decisions. A new TV is only 20% off if you pay the card before they charge you interest. If your interest rate was 24% and all you did was pay the minimum you wouldn’t benefit from the sale at all. In that case, you would actually be paying 4 % more. The minimum would only cover the interest rate. This holds true for any sale but is more important during this season. Use a spending plan so you will know how much you can afford and adjust your expenses accordingly.

Up until now, we have spoken only about those things that cost money and how to plan for them, but let us not forget what the holidays are about: family, friends, and camaraderie. Some of those goals you want to accomplish aren’t tied to your bank balance. You may want to spend more time with family or friends, or get in better shape, or be more grateful, and this is the perfect time of year to work on those resolutions.

Planning out your holiday spending will give you the freedom to enjoy what really matters. Being able to give presents or cook a great meal is a blessing but, in the end, it is rarely what’s remembered. The most memorable and important thing will be the time spent together with loved ones. Don’t lose sight of that. As financial coaches, we work with our customers to focus on those passionately held goals ahead of us, goals that fall in line with those values you hold deeply. This is the time of year to remember and celebrate those values. Happy Holidays!

Setting S.M.A.R.T Goals for a Happy and Healthy Financial Future

By Andy Collado | Financial Coach | The Financial Clinic

Customers have a wide variety of reasons why they come to me for help: budgeting, improving their credit score, managing their debt, and a variety of other presenting issues. But ultimately they are looking for help in achieving their goals.

Drawing these dreams and aspirations out in color can be difficult. When confronted with adversity, our first response is usually to face the urgency in front of us, but that instinct can blind us to the great planning work we are all capable of. This is why it is extremely important to understand the motivations that push us forward.

  • What will you gain from solidifying your budget?
  • What will a high credit score allow you to do?
  • What is your debt holding you back from achieving?

In this blog post, I will go over how to take a step back from the front line and rise above your present situation to see not only the whole picture but also, that goal on the horizon.

Every journey starts with one step, but first, we need to know where we are going. Whether we notice it or not, we are constantly inundated by people talking about goals. Whether it’s articles, podcasts, top ten lists, social media posts, or even calls from mom comparing you to yet another cousin, the constant barrage of goal talk can make it hard to hone in on what you want, and shift your focus to other people’s goals. And while it is not bad to take inspiration from others, what those goals lack is the personal motivation that comes from aligning your goals with your personal values.

Generally speaking, life can be broken up into eight different categories, based on values: Finance, Material Goods, Community, Family, Spirituality, Health, Career, and Fun. Rank these in order of importance to you, and don’t worry, it is perfectly fine to list fun as first! Then look at them individually, with a critical eye, and gauge your level of satisfaction. Are you 25% satisfied, 50%, or maybe 100%? For those that don’t hit the century mark, ask yourself ‘what would it take make me feel 100% percent satisfied in that area of my life’? Once you have done all of that it’ll be time to get S.M.A.R.T.

Your goals should be:

  • (S)pecific
    You need to eliminate all vagueness by asking yourself, why do I want to do this? Is it because it helps me acquire or achieve something else? Keep going until you get to what you want for its sake alone.
  • (M)easurable
    Make sure you can track your progress, that way you can celebrate when you hit a new milestone!
  • (A)chievable
    We may want to play in the NFL, but if you are a middle-aged man with bad knees, that may not be in the cards for you. Be sure that your goal is possible within your personal situation.
  • (R)elevant
    Your goal must be passionately held and important to you. Hopefully, we have already confirmed this by making sure your goals are aligned with your values.
  • (T)ime Based
    Give it a deadline. When do you want to complete this goal? The deadline can change if need be, but we need one. This helps keep you accountable.

At this point, you have aligned your goals to your values and sent them to school to find themselves. Now we must pause for a second and start moving backward. You have your goal; but how do you get there?  Ask yourself what is the step you will take right before achieving your goal. Then keep going until you get back to where you are today.

Let’s say you want to buy a home, the step before that is finding a home to buy. Before that? Knowing what you can afford. How do you know your price range? You calculate the cost of the mortgage and other housing expenses into your budget. How do you do that? You figure out how much you can put down and get pre-qualified for a mortgage. So on and so forth, until you figure out how much you need to and are able to save per month for the down payment, and what steps you need to take to improve your credit score. By working your way backward from your goal, you are able to lay out all of the steps you need to accomplish to make it happen. Before you know it, you are in the red zone, the last ten yards are just you following the plan that has already been laid out. Throughout this process, it is perfectly normal to not know what the next step is, or how to even begin the research. A financial coach can help you identify those goals, strategize your path, and break everything them down into small manageable chunks so you are not feeling overwhelmed.

By focusing on one step at a time you build the momentum and willpower needed to complete your goal. Each time you complete the process of turning your dreams into technicolor reality it will get easier and you will be that much closer to living your best life. Now’s the time to get to work, find out what matters to you, lay down the plan, and to get it done. You can do it!

Practicing What We Preach: A Practitioner’s Approach to Sensible Economic Policy

By Mae Watson Grote | Founder and CEO | The Financial Clinic

Economic policy for low-income Americans is often written by economists.  But alternatively, what might a practitioner-based approach look like? How would the success factors change?

At The Financial Clinic, we advocate for a nation where every American is financially secure, and for economic policy that centralizes the needs of America’s working poor.  Currently, around seven percent of Americans remain unbanked, and possibly up to twenty percent of banked Americans report needing to rely on non-traditional financial services. The Federal Reserve’s own SHED data reports that thirty-five percent of Americans would be unable to pay all of their monthly bills in full if they were faced with a $400 emergency. The impact created by this financial insecurity extends far beyond individual households.

It is clear that improving financial inclusion and financial security is not just beneficial to low- and moderate-income families: it strengthens the American economy.

The Financial Clinic understands the risk financial exclusion and insecurity present to the health of our nation, because its practitioners work everyday directly serving working poor families and building their financial security through an outcomes-oriented, strength-based model empirically proven to deliver measurable results.  The Clinic’s leadership within the financial security field gives us a unique perspective on the daily struggles of working Americans and the impact that economic policy has when it fails to fully take into account their perspective.

A central goal of my career has been to build the financial security of working poor Americans by arming them with the financial knowledge and capability they need to achieve their goals.  After well over a decade of work in this field, one of the primary lessons that I have taken away is that knowledge on its own is insufficient to achieve lasting financial security. Hard working people across this country face far greater barriers than a lack of financial literacy. Americans today face a dynamic, challenging economic and financial landscape that, while showing positive signs of strength, continues to leave far too many without the skills or the income they need to reach their potential.

To address these critical challenges, The Financial Clinic has focused on bringing the people that we serve – and critically,  the organizations that serve them – to the forefront of our work. By democratizing solutions to systemic poverty, it is possible to unlock the enormous potential of human service and community development practitioners, and leverage their unique knowledge and skills to inform a blueprint for how anti-poverty efforts can be strengthened nationwide.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that there are 1.8 million workers on the front-lines of anti-poverty work.  My vision is that every one of them have a financial security tool, product, or practice in their arsenal that informs their unique mission and meets their customers where they are.  Our vision – together as practitioners, nonprofit leaders, and economists –  is a social service sector where job developers have all the tools they needed to spot their client’s credit problems, domestic violence advocates are trained in practices to screen for financial abuse, and community college counselors help their students readily and effectively pair financial goals with career goals.

With the aim of harnessing the power of technology for social good, we created our financial coaching platform Change Machine. The platform is integral to our vision of scaling up our rigorously evaluated financial coaching model – the first in the field – and empowering social service practitioners across the country to build the financial security of their communities. We pair the tools and resources of the coaching platform with a set of wrap around capacity building supports focused on integrating financial security into the existing set of services any organization offers. Through the direct provision of financial coaching, and the support we provide to over 460 social service organizations across the country, we have been able to put nearly $80 million dollars back in the pockets of over 48,000 customers.

I am so proud of what The Financial Clinic has accomplished, but our work remains unfinished. We are redoubling our efforts to leverage the household financial data we collect through Change Machine, the lived experience of our customers, and the unique capabilities of our organizational partners to develop best practices, innovative financial products, and economic policies that will build a more financially secure America.

Partner Series: Supporting Adults With Autism/IDD as a Financial Coach

A Guest Blog By Taryn Oesch, CPTM | Board Secretary |  The Power of the Dream

A 2014 report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions found that twice as many adults with disabilities live in poverty than adults without disabilities, that fewer than 30 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities work, and that American households that include an adult with a disability earn 38.4 percent less than households that don’t.

For individuals with autism or intellectual/developmental disabilities (IDD), the numbers are, perhaps, even more alarming. The unemployment rate among people with intellectual disabilities is more than twice as high as the rate for the general population, and only 26 percent of adults with intellectual disabilities who do work have full-time jobs. About 85 percent of college-educated adults with autism are unemployed, and more are underemployed.

Clearly, financial support is critical for individuals with autism/IDD. With the high prevalence of autism/IDD (about 1.5 million people in the U.S. have autism, and about 6.5 million have an intellectual disability) and the high rate of financial struggles among those people, you’re likely to work with at least one person with autism/IDD, or a person with a close family member with autism/IDD. How can you help?

What Are Autism/IDD?

First of all, what are autism/IDD?

Autism spectrum disorder, often called autism or ASD, encompasses a range of symptoms and levels of severity. They include difficulties with social communication and interactions; repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities; and difficulties developing and maintaining social relationships. It includes Asperger’s syndrome, which is no longer an official diagnosis but which many individuals still use to identify themselves as people with autism who typically have less or no impairment in cognitive or language development.

An intellectual disability is what it sounds like – an impairment in intellectual functioning and what’s known as adaptive behaviors (social and practical skills). A developmental disability is a cognitive and/or physical impairment diagnosed before the age of 22 that limits the person in three or more of these areas: self-care, receptive and expressive language, learning, mobility, self-direction, capacity for independent living, or economic self-sufficiency. Common intellectual and developmental disabilities include Down syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, ASD and cerebral palsy.

Coaching Adults With Autism/IDD

Many of the goals of financial coaching for individuals with autism/IDD and their families are similar to the financial coaching goals for individuals without disabilities. They include:

  • Identifying financial goals and developing a plan to achieve them
  • Asset-building, including creating an easy-to-use spending planner, enrolling in eligible benefits, creating a savings plan, and understanding ABLE accounts (if applicable)
  • Opening and managing a bank account
  • Understanding and managing credit, including checking credit scores, building and repairing credit, and avoiding or remedying identity theft
  • Managing debt, including understanding and paying bills, learning about bankruptcy (if applicable), and managing student loan payments (if applicable)
  • Paying taxes, including knowing where to obtain free tax preparation, understanding available tax credits, and understanding and saving tax refunds
  • Finding additional help, including referrals to legal help and benefits resources

Working with individuals with autism/IDD requires the same basics that any coaching relationship does, like building trust, being client-centered and focusing on strengths. However, there are some guidelines you should follow to provide the best service to these clients:

  • Provide clear, easy-to-understand communication. This means using straightforward language and providing visual aids instead of too much written communication.
  • Understand government benefits for people with disabilities, and be able to make recommendations to your clients based on their goals, employment status and other factors.
  • Help individuals understand and build on their skills and strengths.
  • Know about employment opportunities for individuals with autism/IDD, including job coaching and micro-enterprise.
  • Understand the needs of families, and help them with their financial goals. What does the family need to do to be able to support the individual with autism/IDD? Does your state offer ABLE Accounts, for example?

Know where to find more resources and advice. For example, The Power of the Dream, a partner of The Financial Clinic, is always available to answer questions.

About The Power of the Dream

The Power of the Dream is part of our WorkBOOST National ecosystem. Based out of Raleigh, NC, its mission is to create jobs and advocate for adults with Autism or other Intellectual Development Disorders in the North Carolina Triangle

Retention, Relationship Building, and Meeting Customers Where They Are – An Interview With Kristen Baker

Interviewed by: Darren Liddell, Director of Program Innovation

Recently, the Clinic’s Senior Financial Coach, Kristen Baker, was recognized for having the most customer sessions, the highest customer retention rate, and most customer outcomes achieved in 2017 among all coaches in the NYC Financial Empowerment Center Network.

Kristen’s outstanding achievements have shown us all that when it comes to helping people build financial security, she is a bit of an expert. In the hopes of spreading some of her expertise, we asked the Clinic’s Director of Program Innovation Darren Liddell to sit down with Kristen and learn all about how she got into financial coaching, what she believes are the best practices for engaging customers, and how other financial coaches can maximize their impact.

[This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.]

Darren Liddell (DL): Tell us about yourself, when you began to work with The Financial Clinic, and a little bit about your background.

Kristen Baker (KB): I joined The Financial Clinic as a financial coach in 2015 and have been working on the Office of Financial Empowerment (OFE) contract for just over two years. Before joining The Financial Clinic, I worked at a domestic violence shelter and in workforce development and college career development at a community organization in Queens. I moved into direct service work after getting my Masters in social work here in NYC.

I also have 13 years experience in culinary retail, selling pots and pans, and that was certainly very customer driven. I think that really honed my ability to work with different populations that have all sorts of different goals. And, if you have any questions about the difference between a braise and a roast, then I’ll be happy to answer those as well!

DL: Good to know!  When my meat-making skills need refining, I’ll come to you for the best pots and pans to make it happen. Kristen, I wanted to ask a follow-up question on something you mentioned in your prior answer, your background in social work and in sales. How do you feel those experiences tie into your daily work as a financial coach? Do you have any recommendations for new coaches?

KB: Sure. There are many social work practice skills that I continue to use daily. Whether it is engaging customers and creating a plan for their very general goal or figuring out a specific asset-oriented, forward-thinking, strengths-based goal, I spend time getting to know people and validating their experiences while offering some insight. That has been extremely valuable and shows in my coaching where 48% of customers come back for at least a second meeting

A lot of the conversations we have here in our direct services department has been engaging the coaches in exploring what their soft skills are. That means really being able to sit down with people from all different walks of life and aid them in identifying what their own passionately held goals are. As a financial coach, and also a supervisor, I get to practice this daily to hone and refine these skills. I also get to engage with my team of coaches and use our professional development time to teach a little about what I have learned as a social worker without the hefty student loans.

DL: Love that and also love that you are tying in a personal finance issue – student loans – that is very near and dear to many of the customers that we serve, as well as practitioners that may be reading this now. You also mentioned customers a little bit, and I wanted to ask you if you have a favorite customer story? What is the story? Who was the customer?  Why are they your favorite, and what was the result of them coming in for coaching?

KB: I am not sure whether I can choose a favorite, but I can spend a little bit of time talking about one of the customers I’ve seen this week.

One of my sites has a customer I’ve been seeing every six months or so, and her presenting goal is to retire comfortably. She is older and she has had an inconsistent work history. Her social security payments are very low and as people know, rents are going up everywhere, not just in New York City.

It’s really great to have her come in regularly so that we can see how her budget is going and see if the goals we set out are still on track. The way her bank balance increases and how she manages the credit cards is sometimes an extension of what we count as her budget.  She actually just filed her taxes and that’s always an exciting opportunity for saving.

For me, being able to maintain a relationship with someone, is the most rewarding part of the job.  I love it when people are coming back and checking in with me.  You can see how all the hard work they have been putting into their finances positively impacts their lives.

DL:  Getting back to your awards sweep, you have received recognition from the NY Office of Financial Empowerment for the most sessions, highest retention, and most customer outcomes achieved. Can you share with other practitioners things they should keep in mind to increase their impact with the customers they meet?

KB: Sure, these are conversations that we are constantly having on our team. I would say that having a really solid intake process where there is customer engagement, where you can achieve mutual accountability, and where you can build trust to encourage follow up is key. We are the coaches, and while it is up to our customer to identify their financial goals, it is up to us to do the coaching and keep people engaged. If they fail to follow up or maybe don’t come in, just check in and say, “How are you? I was just thinking about you and that question that you had, here is an article that reminded me of you,” then from there, re-open the conversation about outcome areas, connect those outcomes back to the goal. I think it’s important to have that holistic view of who this person is. What is their environment like? What are their goals in terms of finances and otherwise? How does financial coaching fit into what they are looking to do with their lives?

DL: It sounds like keeping the customer’s goals at the forefront of the conversation and taking good notes for the next meeting so that you can refer back to what their main objective was, is essential to the process.

KB: Yes! Especially as a supervisor, I love data! If it’s not in our system, if it’s not in Change Machine, then it didn’t happen. Actually, I can attribute a large majority of my outcomes to absolutely baselining everything. If someone comes in and says they have one checking account and it has $10 in it, the next time I’m seeing them I’m asking, “how is your bank account doing these days? What’s your balance now?” Then tracking their savings progress towards their goals and watching it build can be that much more gratifying.

DL: Thanks for highlighting the importance of baselining and data. This is actually tying into a question that I was going to ask you. What would you say is your “secret sauce” in terms of getting customers to come back for second meetings and beyond?

KB: Well, first and foremost, it’s my personality, Darren. (Insert big smiles!) You have to be approachable and you have to build trust. But also, I bring a level of professionalism and make sure to convey to customers that I care about their success. This is all part of a larger system, but it all basically comes down to the relationship and letting people know that I believe in them.

Often times, I’m seeing people who haven’t had many people in their lives that think they can achieve their goals. So, to really normalize it and say that every person who comes in here sets a goal, makes all the difference. People just need someone to believe in and advocate for them, and when they come back and stick with the process, the likelihood that they’ll meet that goal skyrockets!

DL: What about monitoring progress and tracking outcomes when customers aren’t in the room with you for coaching. Do you do follow up calls? Is there a check-in?  Are you updating customers about things between appointments? Tell me a little bit about that.

KB:  As any coach or social service practitioner knows, it’s difficult to get people in the door. Whether it’s child care challenges, the weather, mass transportation, or traffic jams, there are always barriers. So, our priority is to meet customers where they are and accommodate what works for them while also maintaining our schedule and workload.

I do stress using email and phone follow-ups because I think that is an easy way to keep people engaged. For example, if someone calls me in the morning to cancel their 12 o’clock appointment because they have to stay home with a sick child, I’ll ask them if we can have a quick phone check-in when it’s nap time.  Also, using technological supports like delayed or pre-scheduled emails to remind someone to bring in a document or put something in the mail before their next appointment will help keep them on track.

Another helpful tip is to set automatic check-ins at various intervals after the initial meeting.  So, maybe at 3 months we will follow up on a credit score, and at 6 months we will check in on a debt reduction. We also take advantage of built-in reengagement times, like tax time. Tax time is great for re-engaging customers because for many people receiving certain tax credits, it is the best opportunity for saving.

DL: I love that you are leveraging opportunities in the natural calendar and in people’s lives to make the maximum impact.  As we wrap up our interview, can you tell me what you think the most important practice is for coaches to implement?

KB: Financial coaching is something that is beneficial to everyone. People will come in and say “I don’t have any money coming in, so I can’t do a budget yet”, but that’s actually the best time to make a budget because an approach to finances should be forward thinking and asset-oriented, not reactionary.

The best thing we can do for the financial security of our customers is to help them plan. This way, no matter what their financial goal is, it is intentional, and they have an action plan to get there. When people are working daily towards a plan and meeting little milestones along the way, we know they are really being empowered by having a choice of what to do with their finances, and that there will be a sense of pride when they reach their financial goals that will help them succeed long into their financial futures.

Have a burning question to ask about becoming the best financial coach you can be?  Email us, and we may invite you to be a guest on one of our upcoming podcasts. (Launching soon!)  

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Financial Coach Kristen Baker received recognition from New York City’s Office of Financial Empowerment for Most Sessions, Highest Client Retention, and Most Client Outcomes achieved.

  • MOST CLIENT SESSIONS IN 2017: Holding down the OFE team during staff transitions in the beginning of the year, KB held over 700 meetings. That’s about 17 meetings per week sustained through the full coaching year.
  • HIGHEST CLIENT RETENTION ACHIEVED IN 2017: Almost half (48%) of KB’s customers came back to see her. That’s out of the total 354 customers she met with in 2017.
  • MOST CLIENT OUTCOMES ACHIEVED IN 2017: She was awarded for the 254 outcomes achieved from the OFE framework, but according to Clinic Mission, KB achieved 403 total outcomes at an Achieving Mission rate of 22%. In other words, 22% of her customers achieved both asset-oriented (A,B, T, G) and debt-oriented (C, D) outcomes.