Wealthier individuals often have financial advisors to assist them in their investments and other financial pursuits. However, lower-income Americans may not be able to afford the services of financial advisors — and they arguably need their services the most.
Too many Americans lack the basic financial planning necessary to spend their limited funds wisely and avoid debt. Once they fall into debt, bad financial habits keep them there. Feelings of helplessness and despair can follow. Financial planners are doing their part to correct this through pro bono assistance programs.
The Financial Planning Association (FPA) has been engaging in pro bono work for over a decade and has recently formed a partnership with the Foundation for Financial Planning (FFP) to coordinate the FPA pro bono efforts among their nearly 100 local chapters.
State and local FPA chapters hold free financial advisory sessions at various times throughout the year. One such event was held recently by the New York FPA chapter in Times Square as part of National Financial Advisor Week (the third week of every September). Basic financial literacy services were provided, along with other topics, from how to prepare for retirement to how to pay for children's college educations.
Those helped during the sessions included the homeless, victims of domestic violence, and others who are dealing with more stressful life circumstances than just a low income. Advisors lay the groundwork for positive major life changes by empowering those they advise and taking concrete actions wherever possible.
Anthea Perkinson, CFP®, the President Elect of the New York FPA, gave the example of preparing simple wills for domestic violence victims that appoint clear guardianship of their children. Perkinson said that those helped "walked out with confidence and a sense of accomplishment."
One of the most useful classes operated by the FPA volunteers covers simple tracking of spending. Too many people have no budget, nor do they have any idea what they spend on a daily basis for simple things. A cup of coffee here, a soda or candy bar there, and too soon their discretionary money is gone without any thought of savings.
When people track their budget for a short time, they are often shocked at how much they spend and make better decisions on whether the purchase is worth it. In other words, is a $5 cup of coffee every working day better than having $1,300 during the year that can be used for other purposes?
Some of the dysfunction is more severe. Anthony Canale, former president of the New York FPA chapter, described the story of a woman who was living in a homeless shelter while carrying around a Gucci handbag and spending $160 per month to get her hair done. Financial counseling can be the first step toward a person fully understanding the consequences of their situation, and can set them on the path to better priorities and wiser decisions.
If you could benefit from financial planning but cannot afford their services, keep an eye out for free financial advisors in your area. You can check with the FFP, your state or local FPA organization, or local financial planners for the dates of any pro bono services.
Do not turn down free services for reasons of pride. There is no shame in seeking the financial services that you need. You can use their assistance to turn around your financial situation — and perhaps one day, you will be able to afford professional financial services as a result, or be able to help others by giving advice yourself.