Delaware Offers Free Financial Advice

In the wake of the 2008 global recession, this statewide empowerment program is teaching financial wellness one person at a time.

Renita Patrick lives with her grown son and daughter and four grandkids in a house in Wilmington, Del. She emigrated from Jamaica 12 years ago, and for the last five years, she's been working at a nearby child-care learning center, sending money back to her family and trying to help her granddaughter with minor school expenses.

Patrick is now in her 60s. Before she found financial wellness coach Shay Frisby through the learning center, she had no savings. As much as she wanted to help her family financially, Patrick realized she had to take care of herself too, especially as she got older. "I was doing people all around and I wasn't doing me," Patrick said of her financial situation.

Now that's changing. For the past six months, she's been working with Frisby to pay off her credit-card bills, consolidate her debt, improve her credit score, and open a savings account with $100 at the Sun East Federal Credit Union in Wilmington. "I don't have a lot of money in there, but it's a start," she said. "It made me feel so much better about myself."

If anything good has come from the financial crisis, it's that people are starting to wake up to the importance of helping people manage their personal finances both at the national level, with the formation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and at the state level, with programs like Stand By Me, a financial empowerment program started by Delaware Gov. Jack Markell.

"There's a lot of conversation about economic mobility and the like, and if we can provide some conversation that empowers people to take responsibility for their financial lives and gives them the confidence they need to do that, I think that's very powerful," Markell said in an interview with National Journal.

The program, a joint venture of the state of Delaware and the United Way of Delaware, leverages a small staff of just 18 full-time coaches to provide free personal-finance counseling to more than 3,000 Delawareans. Although there are no income guidelines, the majority of participants are low- to moderate-income. Fifty-two percent of them are African-American, and a surprisingly high number of them — 72 percent — are women. Funding for the program, which costs about $1.3 million annually, comes largely from the private sector. Corporations and foundations cover about 75 percent of the amount, while 25 percent comes from public sources, both state and federal.

Mary Dupont, the director of financial empowerment for the Department of Health and Social Services, stresses the importance of having the state government's support. "The most amazing thing to me," said Dupont, "is before coming into government I did work in the nonprofit sector, and this is not a job that the nonprofit sector can do alone. We have to have state government involved in order to get real muscle behind this work."

Partnering with state employers, nonprofits, community colleges, high schools, and faith-based communities, as well as child-care providers around the state, the program offers personal financial coaching. What's offered depends on the needs of the institution: With businesses, the program is offered as an employee benefit. At community colleges, it is offered as a resource to students and their families as well as to the staff. At high schools, it is offered as part of college-access programs. Areas that the program teaches include budget planning, debt management, and helping people navigate the financial system with regard to applying to college and paying for it. The approach is highly personal.

That personal touch is key, says Lauren Lyons Cole, a certified financial planner who has no affiliation with the program. "Reading books or articles can be helpful, but nothing beats getting personalized advice from someone who knows the details of your specific situation," she says. "Having expert guidance in creating a plan can help relieve stress and put people on track to reaching their goals."

The benefits go well beyond monetary concerns. Take, for instance, the difficulty of navigating postsecondary institutions. "Those with a college degree are ultimately going to be able to get more," Dupont says, "but getting it, applying for it, paying for it, and getting financial aid and student loan debt is complicated."

Navigating a complex financial system comes with real costs. Studies have shown that the stress of poverty impairs overall cognitive functioning and hurts people's ability to do other tasks. A full 53 percent of Stand By Me participants say they have little to no control over their finances, and 57 percent report being extremely to somewhat worried about their finances. For them, financial coaching means the opportunity to go further in life.

Such findings are particularly meaningful given inequalities that exist across race and class. The median national income for whites is $57,000 a year, and in Delaware it's $62,000. For African-Americans that number drops to $33,000 per year, or $42,000 in Delaware; for Hispanics it's $39,000, and $35,000 in the state. Ignoring the effects of poverty on performance reinforces these disparities.

That Delaware is a small state makes coordination of the program that much easier. Stand By Me has been able to contract with nonprofits in every county, for instance, but there are only three counties to coordinate with. Implementation in California would be a bit more involved.

Stand By Me has recently completed an 18-month program evaluation, and the National Governors Association is drafting a case study of the program to be distributed to other states. But for the most part, Dupont is keeping her focus in state and in helping people like Patrick save and spend their money wisely.