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From the Trenches: A Financial Counselor Reflects on How We're Coping

January 3rd, 2010 at 01:49 pm



If you wanted to gain insight on how working Americans are dealing with the recession, you need look no further than Michelle Vullo Pastor, a Denver-based Accredited Financial Counselor. Through her business, Enrich Finance, Michelle visits the workplace to speak with employees about their personal finances.

I sat down with Michelle recently to talk about her impressions of how Americans are responding to the financial crises many of them face.


Q. Can you tell me a little more about your business, Michelle?

Vullo Pastor: Enrich Finance is a financial wellness company specializing in consumer credit and personal finance issues. I travel across the country to visit with employees in all sorts of industries, from manufacturing and technology to law firms, government agencies and hospitals. I get my business primarily through word-of-mouth.

This year, I've visited 95 companies, from San Francisco to Worcester, Massachusetts, to provide workshops on reducing debt and saving for the future. At some companies, I might present a two-day, 16-hour presentation where attendance is mandatory and shift work is stopped so that employees can attend. We also offer one-on-one counseling for individual employees, which could include a series of five or six sessions, according to the employee's needs. At other times, I'm called in after layoff announcements have been made.

We deal with hundreds of different companies of all sizes, and I talk with people who are making as little as $25,000 to over $400,000 a year. Regardless of income, what is striking is that for some employees, this is the only personal finance education they'll receive.

Q. What's the difference between an Accredited Financial Counselor and a Certified Financial Planner?

Vullo Pastor: Unlike a Certified Financial Planner, an Accredited Financial Counselor like me has no products to sell, so my advice is completely objective. I don't provide specific investment advice.

Q. Why do employers invite you to speak with their employees?

Vullo Pastor: My presentations are paid for by employers because they understand that a distracted or stressed out employee is not a productive employee. Research shows that fully 25% of employees worry about their finances to the point where their health and productivity suffer and this, in turn, takes a toll on the employer's bottom line. In fact, 70% of healthcare costs can be traced back to poor lifestyle choices brought on by stress, such as smoking, overeating, substance abuse and poor sleep habits.

What's more, employees in financial trouble may be fielding creditor phone calls at work, calling their bank or credit card companies from the office, using excessive sick time or even looking for higher-paying work elsewhere.

So employers are often looking to increase worker productivity; at other times, they want to offer an additional benefit.

Q. How do employers become aware there's a problem?

Vullo Pastor: Sometimes, individual employees may approach HR or their manager for a raise or pay advance. Another big red flag is they'll be looking to take out a loan or distribution from their 401(k).

Q. What kinds of things do you speak about?

Vullo Pastor: Nearly everything that affects an employee's personal finance, including budgeting, impulse spending, debt consolidation options, how to compare loans, avoiding foreclosure / bankruptcy, negotiating with creditors, auto loans versus car leases, dealing with collection agencies, 401(k) loans, medical bill relief and how to build an emergency fund.

Q. Americans have been forced to reexamine their attitudes about money since the recession started in late 2007. How successful have they been in creating a more responsible money mindset, and do you think these changes are lasting or transient?

Vullo Pastor: People are cutting back in some areas but are unwilling to reduce spending in other areas. For example, they may be willing to eat at home more often, but they won't give up their cell phone or cable TV. Those are the first two luxuries I find myself suggesting they cut back on when money gets tight, but many people refuse to do so.

People are scared. In the past, they often used credit, like a home equity line of credit, to finance a lifestyle they couldn't afford, but now that credit's tight, that's not so easy to do.

Some individuals still have trouble getting their priorities straight. I had one client who was desperate to reach me just a few days before Christmas a few years ago. She was in dire straits. She couldn't pay her utility bills, so she had opened new accounts for them in her 12-year-old daughter's name. She told me excitedly of how thrilled she was to have been "adopted" by an "angel family" at her church, which meant that her children would receive Christmas presents. As we discussed her situation further, I asked her what other big expenses were coming up, and she told me that what she really wanted to buy her daughter for Christmas was an Xbox, a video game console that typically sells for about $300. I told her she couldn't afford it, but she wasn't willing to listen to that advice.

Q. What's the #1 concern on people's minds right now?

Vullo Pastor: Job security, to the point where many employees are sticking with jobs they don't really enjoy. While funding the kids' college education and saving for retirement used to be on the radar, these financial goals have fallen by the wayside lately; people are more narrowly focused on just making it through the year.

One of the most disturbing trends I've seen is an increasing number of employees who are not only taking loans out against their 401(k)s but cashing them out entirely, despite the big tax hit many will take for early withdrawal. People want that cash in hand, but when you see a 55-year-old with barely any retirement savings, that's not good. Robbing yourself of your own retirement is probably the very last thing I would recommend.

While there are almost always other options, too many people are using that 401(k) money to maintain a lifestyle they can't afford and they may cling to a false sense of entitlement that because they work hard, they deserve this.

Another worrisome trend I've seen is a big increase in wage garnishments by credit card companies and other creditors. If, by the time an employee comes to see me, his wages are already being garnished, it can be very difficult to set things right.

Q. How do you help employees who sit down with you for one-on-one counseling?

Vullo Pastor: It's amazing that many employees, even those making a six-figure salary, have never really studied their budget. Others are close to the edge of a full-blown financial disaster.

I'll ask clients ahead of time to bring their financial information with them to the counseling session, and I've had some who brought in an entire box of unopened credit card statements and bills.

One of the simplest, yet most important things you can do is take a look at how much money's coming in, and how much is going out. Most of my clients aren't willing to track their spending for an entire month, so we arrive at their spending habits by looking at old utility bills and so on.

I worked with an attorney once who was earning over $400,000, yet he was spending $5,000 more a month than he earned. So the problem of overspending is often the same, regardless of personal income.

If there's a negative monthly cash flow, I'll brainstorm with the client for places to cut spending. For instance, I'll warn about "bill creep," or the ease with which recurring monthly bills can increase, like when you switch from basic to expanded cable or upgrade to a higher speed DSL service.

If expenses have already been cut to the bone, we'll look into possibly restructuring high interest credit card debt into a debt consolidation loan from a credit union; credit counseling, bankruptcy and home equity loans are other options. We'll send them home with a written plan and check in with them after a few weeks and tweak the plan as necessary.

Q. It sounds like your job involves two parts financial counseling and one part psychotherapy. Is that true?

Vullo Pastor: Absolutely. If I'm working with a married couple, sometimes one spouse is very committed to making changes but the other is not on board; for example, the wife wants to keep on the cleaning people but the husband does not. It can be difficult. The counseling sessions can get very heated. I've had to leave the room because people are yelling at each other. Finances are the #1 cause of divorce.

Q. How do you get people to change their behavior?

Vullo Pastor: Because so many people are operating in the dark when it comes to their finances, it can be a real eye-opener for them to learn about the true state of their financial affairs. Once we arrive at hard and fast numbers, what's coming in vs. what's going out, I can offer clients a system that allows them a fixed amount of "fun money" each month. This is money they can freely spend knowing that all their essentials (the mortgage, utility bills and so on) are covered. Knowing what their limits are can provide security and peace of mind.

Q. Are workers optimistic about the future?

Vullo Pastor: Not really. Nearly everyone these days knows someone who's lost their job, whether it's a friend, neighbor or even their own spouse. Maybe they're employed, but they didn't get a pay raise this year, their work hours were cut or there were forced furlough days.

Q. What is at the root of our obsession with spending?

Vullo Pastor: Immediate gratification. People work hard, and they feel they deserve to have fun things in life, whether it works with their budget or not.

It's important to some people that they appear as successful as their neighbors, coworkers, friends or family. For instance, I had two clients who worked at the same company. When I spoke with the first one, he told me how financially strapped he was and described a situation that really did seem desperate.

When I met with the second man, he too spoke of the terrible shape of his personal finances and how much trouble he was in, but he mentioned the first man by name and said, "Now there's someone who really has his act together. He makes so much money. That's who I want to be like."

So what you may envy as your coworker's great success story can really be just a house of cards.

Nowhere is the sense of immediate gratification apparent than in real estate. When I delve into my clients' background, more often than not, they purchased their house with no or very little money down and can't afford the payments.

Q: Do you think that, 10 years from now, Americans will look back at this recession as a blessing in disguise because of the lessons it's taught us?

Vullo Pastor: I believe that most people are reacting in crisis mode and have not yet made fundamental, lasting changes in their financial lives. Once the money starts flowing again, I suspect that many will revert back to their old ways of spending and saving.


4 Responses to “From the Trenches: A Financial Counselor Reflects on How We're Coping ”

  1. Apprentice Bliss Hunter Says:

    Great post ! Thanks for sharing ! :-)

  2. DeniseNTexas Says:

    Great interview and entry! I'd love to be able to spend some one on one time with a counselor like that who will give objective advice and not try to sell me something!

  3. boomeyers Says:

    Hmmmmm..... interesting thoughts.

  4. baselle Says:

    Great post - does it feel like there is more fraud (big and little) amongst her clients than in the past? The woman who opened new utility accounts in her daughter's name is a huge red flag for me.

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