The personal finance workshop for struggling women that I posted about earlier this week was a really eye-opening experience. Thanks to all who offered advice in the comments section; most of the topics mentioned were discussed to some degree, and it was really helpful to have read all those comments going in.
There were 20 women in attendance. It was a mostly Black audience, but the ages and backgrounds of the participants varied greatly. Women are referred to this program from many different non-profits, and the administrater let us know in advance that on this particular day a few were from a domestic violence shelter, a few from a substance abuse program, and so on.
It was a really lively, inquisitive crowd. They asked questions constantly on a variety of different topics, and none seemed embarassed to admit their various struggles, financial or otherwise. I think this was a real positive and probably added to their take-away from the workshop.
The workshop itself opened up with some discussion about “why should we care about finances?” “what does money mean to you?” and “is money a blessing or a curse?” Some points we made:
- Strong empowered women by definition have control of their finances.
- Women are the backbone of society; if they are educated about money their kids and families will be too.
- Money itself isn’t good or evil. It’s just a tool, a thing that can provide you with choices and security and independence.
- It’s not immoral or selfish to want to make or save a lot of money; the more you have the more secure your family will be, the more peace of mind you have, and the more ability you’ll have to give back to your community and to those less fortunate.
We emphasized how incredible and significant it is that they had taken the steps and the time to get educated. Most of the women seemed to agree that money is a blessing, that it can give you freedom, and that managing it was very important. So far so good.
Then we went over a budget: how to create one, how to fill in the blanks, how to calculate percentages, what the targets should be, etc. I realized midstream that the exercise itself might be futile; many of these women probably have sporadic income from a variety of sources and lots of out-of-whack expenses they can’t immediately lower (car loans, etc). So I outlined an IDEAL budget (percentage of income in each category) and suggested revisiting it often so that when you manage to decrease one expense or raise income, you’ll know which category (savings, giving, etc) you can and should increase rather than figuring you can afford to go shopping now.
We talked about the importance of setting goals and how each little financial decision adds up to make a big difference; if you splurge on $100 Nike shoes, for instance, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. But what if you bought $30 shoes instead? Imagine what a difference even $70 in a savings account would make to you! They all nodded and some began to take notes.
The discussion on credit was interesting. Many of the women didn’t seem to be able to get credit, though, and few talked about being overwhelmed by debt. Others asked how to get rid of collections items, how long different things stay on your report, what to do when creditors call you about debts you don’t know anything about. These issues were addressed, and we gave out comprehensive packets on how to pull and dispute your report, how to increase your credit, etc.
But then we started talking about banking and the importance of financial organization. And it all started to unravel a bit. Only about a third raised their hands when we asked who had a checking account. Several immediately started exclaiming about ATM fees, limitations on withdrawals, how they can’t get a debit card, how the bank won’t issue them checks…being a banker I am familiar with all these issues. But being a personal finance advisor (in this situation) I was unsure what to suggest.
One woman said bluntly that she used to have a problem writing hot checks when she was young. Now she can’t get a checking account and it’s really hard to pay bills and get organized. Another woman colorfully announced she’d been “locked up” all last year and had no idea what happened to all her records or who took her tax refund. Several complained about excessive account fees, ATM fees, etc.
I desperately wanted to just be able to offer simple solutions to these women. “Enroll in your 401k and get the full match! Open a high yield online savings account! Pay your bills online! Make saving automatic!” But when you can’t even get a debit card or checks, you have to operate in cash (or on credit cards…in which case how on earth do you pay those?). That means you have to go to the ATM constantly, purchase money orders, use Western Union. And fees – and time spent – really add up.
To my surprise the women started offering information and advice to each other. They were knowledgeable about how and where to cash checks cheaply, how many ATM withdrawals different banks would allow each day before charging you, how to get a card which would make retailers accept your checks even though you’re flagged in their “don’t accept this check” system, hotlines to call…I didn’t know anything about these issues!
We did chime in with advice about why and how to avoid payday lenders, check cashing rip-offs, credit counseling scams, identity theft, and all sorts of bank fees. A couple of these women didn’t even know they could get free checking accounts! Several didn’t know some banks offer free ATM withdrawals! I was really surprised.
These women seemed to grasp the bigger issues, they seemed as capable as anybody of saving and budgeting and goal-setting. But the day-to-day management of their finances was a chaotic mess. And that’s before you even add husbands/boyfriends, children, and others into the mix. I certainly had a lot on my mind afterwards.
I hope and think that everybody left the workshop motivated and better informed. I also provided several resources (inlcuding my contact info) for further quesitons. I am already looking forward to my next workshop; I know I will learn and grow a lot right along with the audience.
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