Julia’s story

In late 2018 Julia was in an impossible dilemma: the income from her full-time job was not enough to take care of her and her son.

“I was making $15 per hour so I couldn’t get county assistance. At $15 per hour [a monthly income of $2,400, not including tax or health insurance deductions] I was supposed to be able to pay $1,200 in childcare, and $1,000 in rent. And also for food, because I didn’t qualify for food stamps either… I had no other choice but to lose my job.”

Freed from childcare costs, Julia stayed home and took care of her son, but it was quickly clear that the situation was unsustainable.

“When I lost my job, I had the awful realization that I had nothing to fall back on. A little money in the bank – enough to maybe cover one month, but certainly not the one after that.”

Julia made it work until she got another job just two months later, at a higher pay. But the stress of loosing her income and seeing that her savings were inadequate made it clear to Julia that she needed to change her situation. Julia is not alone in this – in 2019, 40% of households were liquid-asset poor, meaning they lacked the savings to make ends meet for three months if their income was interrupted.

One of her coworkers referred Julia to Money Mentors, Prepare + Prosper’s financial coaching program. Working with her coach, Delores, Julia created a budget and a plan to work towards a high goal over the following two years: owning her own home.

Redefining Money

Overhauling an individual’s financial situation takes a lot more than just building a budget. One has to change the entire way they think about money, taking a hard look at their spending habits and seeing if it lines up with their values. Seeing a discrepancy between how one thinks of themselves and how one actually acts, mapped out in their history of spending habits, can be hard to recognize and change. An individual’s behavior in all things, including spending, are often unconscious habits, picked up silently over a lifetime of influence from parents, peers, and media.

Growing up in a household with financial struggles, Julia learned to define money as fleeting.

“I didn’t really have a concept of saving. I remember being a kid and being the responsible one, my mom asking me to hold on to $300 so she wouldn’t take it to the casino.”

And even then, after enough haranguing, Julia eventually had to give the money back to her mom, which was spent immediately when it could have gone to future needs. Julia didn’t have any examples in her young life that could instill healthy financial habits.

“I grew up with 3 older siblings. I couldn’t leave a dollar on the dresser because it would be gone quick – spent on hot Cheetos or whatever. So I learned that whenever I had money I had to spend it right away, so it wouldn’t be taken from me.”

Recognizing where our money habits come from takes thoughtful reflection, which can be hastened by talking with others. However, many people simply have a hard time talking about it; some find it outright taboo. Money Mentors works hard to change that, encouraging frank conversation between coaches and participants, and between participants in peer sessions.

Working with her coach, Delores, kept Julia accountable to her budget.

“She is super straightforward. If she doesn’t say it with her mouth, she definitely says it with her expression. She’d ask me Is your spending aligning with your goal right now? Is this going to bring you closer or push you farther away from buying your house?”

Out shopping, feeling drawn magnetically to the toddler section to pick something out for her son, Julia would think

“I’m going to have to have this conversation [with Delores] to explain how I spent all this money.”

Given that internal nudge, Julia could change the ingrained habit of exchanging fleeting money for more solid things, redefining money as something to hold on to.

Strength through vulnerability

In her current role at Cornerstone – an organization devoted to serving and advocating for victims of domestic violence, sexual violence, human trafficking, and general crime – Julia leads a financial literacy class, which often includes people who have survived financial abuse. Money already being a difficult topic, past harm complicates it further. To start the conversation, Julia leads with openness and a readiness to talk about her own troubled background with money.

“Society tells you: don’t talk about finances in a public space. Money Mentors peer sessions helped me be vulnerable and talk about money, and I bring that to my financial literacy class, helping my participants be vulnerable as well.”

One class activity is to create dream boards, drawing hopes for their lives five years in the future. Some participants may be looking for solutions to immediate needs – like a place to sleep or an order of protection – and thinking that far in the future can seem impossible. But having hopes and specific goals are critical to making change.

In class, Julia shares her own dream board, proudly showing she’s accomplished one major goal, having bought her home at the end of 2020, despite a tumultuous year. After two years of hard work to save, improve her credit, and reorient her perspective on money, Julia and her son now have the security of their own home.

“I am most proud of breaking the cycle of poverty. Having a home is bringing stability to my son, stability I never had. The only reason we’ll ever have the lights cut out is from a storm, not an unpaid bill.”

No simple answers

Money Mentors is financial coaching, not financial counseling. The names sound very similar, but the approach is not the same. Counseling is meant to address a specific issue and takes a prescriptive approach to tackling it. A counselor might work with a person on something like buying a home or consolidating student loans. The counselor develops a plan to accomplish that specific goal. Coaching takes a more holistic approach. It involves actively listening to the participant, looking at all aspects of their life, and talking about their priorities, dreams, and plans. Then they let the participant determine what path is going to work best for them.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all. No ‘generic’ budget. You have to figure out a budget on your own, tailored to your situation, and you have to know your budget will change.”

Directed by the participant, their time in the program is spent working towards goals they set themselves, advised and encouraged by a coach. This highly individualized approach seeks to meet whatever the participants’ unique situation may be.

 “Money Mentors has changed how I teach my financial literacy class. I tell my participants that I’m not an expert, and that I’m not perfect, and that we’re all working on this.”

Julia’s work to strengthen and improve her financial stability and spread the positive change of open communication surrounding money and values has affected every corner of her and her son’s lives.

“As important as money is, the first money lesson my son will learn is that people are more valuable. No matter what amount of money you have, people come first.”