A man and woman sit at a table in a kitchen. They hold and look at pieces of paper. A laptop sits on the table in front of them.
Free virtual coaching and counseling is available through several nonprofits.
Financial Health
June 25, 2020

‘During difficult times, you’re supposed to use your gifts and services’

Nonprofits are providing free financial coaching and counseling to help people amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with support from Wells Fargo.

Nota del editor: También está disponible una versión en español de esta historia.

When Ann James first joined the U.S. Air Force right after high school and was earning her own money, she said she made some financial mistakes, accruing debt after getting credit cards and buying cars. But after becoming a single mom to her daughter with special needs, she realized she never wanted her daughter to suffer from her financial decisions.

The headshot of a woman smiling at the camera. She is wearing a gray blazer.
Ann James

That’s when James developed an interest and passion for financial education. Today, she holds a doctorate in education and organizational leadership, and provides financial coaching and counseling through her private practice in Henderson, Nevada. She also provides free financial coaching sessions through an effort with the Association for Financial Counseling and Planning Education®, or AFCPE®, a nonprofit that certifies and supports personal finance professionals. With grant support from Wells Fargo, AFCPE launched a free virtual financial counseling and coaching initiative that connects AFCPE-certified financial coaches with people struggling amid COVID-19.

“I wanted to share my experiences with other people and give them hope,” said James, who is certified as an Accredited Financial Counselor® through AFCPE. “If I can do it, they can. Financial education is about opportunity. It’s not based on how much money you have. It’s about changing your mindset.”

This effort is part of the Wells Fargo Foundation’s $175 million commitment to help vulnerable populations navigate through the pandemic, with more than 3,000 grants awarded to help address public health needs, small business, housing, and financial stability challenges.

“COVID-19 is having an acute impact on millions of people who have lost income and are facing immediate and evolving concerns about their financial security,” said Darlene Goins, head of Financial Health Philanthropy for the Wells Fargo Foundation. “The situation is changing rapidly, and the path for accessing government benefits and other assistance can be confusing and stressful. We want all people to know that financial coaches and counselors provided by nonprofit organizations can assist them with applying for public benefits; figuring out which bills to pay first and where to go for help with rent, and other household expenses; and start planning for recovery in a manner that respects their personal situation and preserves financial dignity.”

“I wanted to share my experiences with other people and give them hope. If I can do it, they can.” — Ann James

Getting personalized, free assistance

Wells Fargo’s donation is supporting the expansion of free, personalized, and confidential financial coaching and counseling sessions via phone, online, or video chat nationwide through AFCPE, Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund, National Disability Institute, National Foundation for Credit Counseling, and Operation Hope.

Individuals or families who are struggling to pay for basic needs like rent or groceries, are worried about debt, or are facing other financial hardships can sign up to meet virtually with an AFCPE-certified financial coach or counselor like James. The grant enabled AFCPE to launch the program in collaboration with the Yellow Ribbon Network, an online platform that provides the technology infrastructure, and provide the financial professionals with training about the coronavirus relief bill and other emerging financial recovery resources and a small stipend after they have helped three clients, said Rebecca Wiggins, executive director for AFCPE.

A woman's headshot shows her smiling at the camera while wearing a black shirt.
Rebecca Wiggins

“For us, we felt like it was really important to connect highly trained people with people who are struggling,” Wiggins said. “People were struggling before, and now it’s exacerbated. This hits certain communities or individuals harder at a time when we are seeing people who had never experienced financial insecurity or job loss at this scale. We wanted to create more access to qualified guidance so people can sift through the information. There is a lot of misinformation and fraud out there. Through this program, people get personalized assistance because everybody has a unique situation.”

More than 500 of AFCPE’s certified financial coaches and counselors have stepped up to help, with about 100 people receiving assistance so far. Those seeking help can access the program page and fill out a profile. The Yellow Ribbon Network’s team will match the individual with a counselor or coach.

“We collect information to make sure they get access to the best fit,” Wiggins said. “We often try to match people geographically so they’re aware of local resources.”

Once people have been matched, the financial professional reaches out and coordinates sessions. Individuals seeking help may also upload documents like a credit report or mortgage payment through the Yellow Ribbon Network’s platform, which is compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

“People were struggling before, and now it’s exacerbated. This hits certain communities or individuals harder at a time when we are seeing people who had never experienced financial insecurity or job loss at this scale.” — Rebecca Wiggins

‘This is about meeting people where they are’

Anyone, regardless of income level, can access this opportunity. However, it is focused more on areas like money management, financial crisis, financial security, and getting out of debt, instead of topics like someone’s investment portfolio, Wiggins said.

Because the counseling and coaching is virtual, Wiggins said it can take away physical barriers like having to travel to an office or psychological barriers like asking for help and talking about money. “You’re more behind a screen,” Wiggins said. “This is about meeting people where they are. I want people to know these are highly trained professionals who aren’t selling products. They’re on the financial education side. They bring compassion and empathy.”

A woman sits in front of and looks at a computer screen while she smiles. On the screen is a video of man wearing a hat and sunglasses.
Deanna O’Neal is an accredited financial counselor who is helping to provide free coaching sessions.

Deanna O’Neal is another accredited financial counselor who has been volunteering to work virtually with clients, all so far through phone conversations. In her free time, she typically volunteers in person with several nonprofits, so providing free financial counseling still allows her to give back.

“It’s a great opportunity to do it from my own home and provide assistance to people at a time that is unprecedented,” said O’Neal, who lives near Seattle. “A lot of people have been hit hard, so giving back appealed to me.”

The clients that AFCPE has helped through this initiative have included those who have lost their jobs — or had a spouse who has — and are worried about paying their bills, as well as small business owners who want help keeping their business open, Wiggins said. Clients have also wanted assistance with debt reduction, credit improvement, and budget counseling. O’Neal said she was surprised that most of the people she has worked with haven’t lost their jobs; instead, they want to examine their financial situation.

“It’s made a lot of people reevaluate themselves and ask, ‘Is my job secure? Will I have the ability to pay for things?’” O’Neal said.

While James hasn’t worked with anyone yet through this opportunity, she looks forward to helping. “That’s what we’re here for,” James said. “During difficult times, you’re supposed to use your gifts and services.”

“It’s a great opportunity to do it from my own home and provide assistance to people at a time that is unprecedented. A lot of people have been hit hard, so giving back appealed to me.” — Deanna O’Neal

Tips from financial counselors:

A man sits at a desk while holding a piece of paper and resting his hand on a laptop. A box beside him says: 1. Use digital tools to track your spending and identify what you’re spending money on.
A man sits at a table and looks down at pieces of paper with a calculator near his hand. A box beside him says: 2. Evaluate your needs versus your wants and look at where you can cut expenses.
A man, woman, and two children sit at a kitchen table with food on it. They smile at one of the children. Above them a box says: 3. Capture any savings from the pandemic (i.e., by not going out to eat).
A woman wearing a face mask holds and looks down at a cell phone. Beside her a box says: 4. Treat your credit card like a debit card and pay it off every month.
A woman sits beside a desk and rests her arm on it as she smiles at the camera. Beside her a box says: 5. Look for ways to earn income virtually.
A woman and man sit at a table in a kitchen. They both look at a paper the man holds while the woman has her hands on the laptop. A box beside them says: 6. Don’t invest your money if you’re not saving any of it.
A man and woman sit outside on lounge chairs as they look at a tablet the woman holds. Beside them a box says: 7. Put aside money for your retirement before you save for your child’s college education.
A woman looks upset as she sits in front of a laptop and looks at it. Beside her a box says: 8. Watch out for scammers exploiting the crisis.
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