Laura Lucas had entered a period of transition.
With a master’s degree in computer science and seven years in the field, Laura was now unemployed. She began looking for opportunities in the nonprofit world so that she could fulfill her desire to make a meaningful impact in her community. Soon, her search would lead her to financial coaching — an area where United Way invests heavily — providing support to vulnerable people as they set and achieve financial goals.
In 2012, Laura started working for The Neighborhood Developers, a United Way of Massachusetts Bay strategic partner and one of the five agencies that make up CONNECT. CONNECT is a unique partnership of nonprofits, a housing organization, a community college, a credit union, and a career center, which work in collaboration to improve financial mobility for low-income families. As the first financial coach to be hired full-time, Laura would be working with people, one-on-one, to help get their finances on track.
HOW COACHING HELPS LAURA’S CLIENTS
Every year, Laura works with more than one hundred clients, helping them get up — and stay up — on their feet. It’s normal for her to work with any one client for one to three years, building the trust and familiarity that’s critical to the process.
She describes a woman named Alicia that she had just begun coaching. Alicia was recently unemployed, not making any money, and her credit card bills were chronically late. She had applied for her unemployment benefits, but they were still in process. Laura sat down with Alicia and did a financial assessment of her expenses. Together, they formulated a plan to manage her finances and prioritize what Alicia was and was not able to pay. According to Laura, this is “how someone typically works through an issue. It all starts with understanding where a person is at that moment. The financial options she has or doesn’t have.”
Of the people Laura works with, many are newcomers to the United States. Financial coaching, Laura explains, “helps them get oriented to how things work here.” Laura, an immigrant herself, knows that a crucial aspect of the work is understanding people whose roots are not where they are living now. CONNECT’s coaches speak English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. One woman Laura coached was able to connect to English classes, where she mastered her communication skills. Laura helped her establish credit, and showed her how to save a little bit each month. These skills enabled her client to secure a stable job. Laura is happy with the progress of her client: “She’s moved forward from where she was.”
Laura recalls another family, Tony and Lauren, who needed to buy a car so that Tony could get to his job. Tony had gone to a car dealership, but was unable to negotiate a deal he could easily afford. His wife Lauren was aware of the car buying class that CONNECT had recently run, which included strategies on how to avoid being taken advantage of by the dealership. She convinced Tony to visit their financial coaches. During the meeting, the coach explained that, while he had no credit score, he had participated in a rent reporting program, which indicated he was paying rent on time. That meant he had some credit history. The revelation enabled him to return to the dealership and secure a better deal.
A LONG-TERM STRATEGY FOR SUCCESS
A considerable part of Laura’s job is helping coach her clients through issues that threaten to create punishing setbacks in the short term. One potential setback is a phenomenon many of Laura’s clients face called the “cliff effect,” where an increase in wages leads to a loss of benefits. “There’s a time period where things get worse before things get better.” Other stumbling blocks for a client can include a health scare, a job loss or reduction in hours, a family emergency, or an accident like a house fire.
The best way to help someone, she explains, “depends on the person, what they want for themselves and their families. A big piece is understanding their motivations.”
The fact that Laura works with some clients for years is no surprise. She believes the long-term nature of the relationship is essential, and enables her to provide the help her clients need. It can take awhile for people to understand the value of coaching. “It’s very time consuming to do it properly,” she explains. The longer Laura and a client work together, the more support she can provide. The benefits of years together include “being truthful and creating that trust. Really understanding what their strengths are, what they’re going through. Believing they can transform.”
She goes on: “Relationships don’t happen overnight. It’s the relationships that make people clarify their vision and have deep conversations that are life-changing.”
Laura feels that one of the more rewarding aspects of financial coaching also counts among its challenges: “I see people’s potential. Sometimes they don’t see that potential for themselves. It takes a lot of time to create that relationship and help people move forward in their thinking, understanding what they’re capable of.” The greatest reward occurs when the clients own their own potential. Laura is there to remind them how far they have come: “I say to my clients ‘Now look at you. You’re being approved for credit cards.’ It’s great to see the upward mobility happening.”