by Natalia Joaquin,
Senior Financial Counselor at
Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners
On this #FinHealthMatters Day, I don’t need this astonishing recent report to understand that white households have six times the wealth of Latino families, or that white wealth is growing 20% faster than for Latinos. I saw it for myself when I was fifteen and my mother was able to move me into a better school where I was the only Latina. I made her drop me off in her used Nissan far away from my classmates’ Mercedes Benzes. I saw their big houses, and learned from living in that community that property built wealth that helped those families pay for college.
I saw it, but I didn’t talk about it, because I didn’t want them to know that I was different. My mother, after hiding her constant struggle to put food on the table throughout my childhood, was just beginning to let me see the strain her personal finances were putting on her. She had gone back to community college, in addition to working long hours at Walmart, and was racking up credit card debt to keep us afloat, letting her accounts go into collections because there was just nothing she could do about it.
I knew that if my children were going to have my classmates’ advantages, I would need to buy my own home, and I knew that the key to homeownership was a college education. What I didn’t know was the long-term consequences of the agreements I was signing to pay for that education. When the financial aid officer told me I had run out of financial aid and the only way to pay for my housing was to take out a private loan—I just signed where she told me to sign. When I got out of school and didn’t have a job lined up, like many graduates, I didn’t know about student loan deferment or forbearance. I knew I had a six-month grace period, and then I had to pay up.
At the same time, my mother had gone into nonprofit work with her degree, and taught me to value service to others. It’s why I became an Americorps VISTA at St. Nicks Alliance, helping low-income Brooklynites with benefits screenings, SNAP applications and free tax preparation. It felt good to be helping, but Americorps Volunteers receive a stipend of barely $12,000 a year, which is a real personal finance challenge when you’re living in New York City and paying $500 a month in student loans!
Fortunately, my Americorps experience led to an Education Award that paid off some of my student debt, as well as a job as a tax preparer at Brooklyn Cooperative Federal Credit Union. That’s where I met Justin Enany, a Financial Counselor from Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners, who was teaching a free five-week course called Getting Ahead that empowers participants, mostly low- and moderate-income people, to achieve their financial goals. He told me that teaching the course was rewarding because he could see first-hand the changes that clients made in their financial lives and how this changed their situations and their attitudes towards handling money. Our 2016 outcomes results from our Getting Ahead workshops bear this out. Six months after clients’ first meetings with one of our Financial Counselors:
This, finally, was what I needed. The Getting Ahead workshop is where I learned that without a credit score in this country, you’re nothing. It’s where I learned what my student loans had done to my credit score, and why fixing that credit score was absolutely necessary to get a mortgage. It’s also where I learned the skills to overcome my slow start. Justin met one-on-one with each of us, and helped me understand my options and map out my first steps towards financial health. When I saw that Neighborhood Trust was hiring and training a new cohort of Financial Counselors—I know it sounds corny!—I just knew it was the job for me.
Financial health matters, with more Americans juggling debt and struggling than ever, especially families of color. It can be overwhelming, and my clients often feel hopeless and alone. I’ve been there, and that’s why I’m proud to be doing my part to help. At Neighborhood Trust, our model is that we embed Financial Counselors in settings that clients already know and trust and where they are ready to take action. My own experience helps me build that trust by empathizing with my clients, which in turn helped me earn a city-wide award for my client retention rates in 2016. As a Financial Counselor, I’m proud to help Staten Islanders—most of them Black or Latino like me—reduce and eliminate debt, repair credit, and build housing equity to give their kids the leg up that I never had….
…and I’m doing the same for my future children. Just yesterday, I closed on a condo with my husband, whose credit is even better than mine, now that I’ve passed on to him the financial health skills I teach every day as a Financial Counselor with Neighborhood Trust.