By Lucy Patterson Grindon, International Rescue Committee
Maria Elias has always managed her family’s finances, but she used to do it all in her head. That was before she participated in the IRC’s women’s economic empowerment program. “I’m the one in charge of everything, so before, I was doing everything in my mind, and I learned a better way to do it, to write everything down and see,” Maria said.
The IRC in LA’s personal financial coaching program for women teaches low-income immigrant women skills for financial health. “In addition to the obstacles that refugees and immigrants typically face in the United States, women face additional challenges, perhaps because of culture or religion. Often, they don’t have the opportunity to access resources or information or to have the financial understanding and awareness that a person needs to thrive and succeed in the United States,” said John Greisberger, who created the program.
The program began as an offshoot of the IRC’s citizenship and financial education program for lawful permanent residents who hope to become U.S. citizens. The IRC in Los Angeles received a grant from the Bank of New York Mellon, and Greisberger designed a basic curriculum that could be adjusted to accommodate different women’s needs. He also serves alongside four volunteers and four interns as one of the program’s financial coaches.
Each woman in the program meets with her financial coach at her local Los Angeles public library every week for eight weeks. Participants are often very busy. Most of them have children, many act as the heads of their households, and some have multiple jobs. “We really take pride in the fact that we’re able to meet the women when and where they’re available so they can participate in the program without too much stress,” Greisberger said.
For the women, the program begins with a financial assessment form and a conversation about their family’s financial situation. After the coaches have an idea of the women’s income and expenses, they help them create a household budget.
“If they’re concerned about their spending, we help them identify areas where they can reduce their spending and as a result increase their net income, and once that happens, we can discuss and create financial goals,” said Greisberger. “We also link their financial goals to their budget so that [saving] becomes a regular habit. A number of the women have commented on how they have never looked at how they spent their money in detail, so it’s really an eye-opening and transformative experience for the women and it also gives them a sense of control over their future.”
Beyond creating a balanced household budget, the financial coaches try to meet each of the women’s individual needs. “We ask a lot of questions and do more listening than talking,” Greisberger said. “This program, which is really client-centered, allows women to ask questions and voice their concerns.”
“We provide information on banks and credit unions and the differences between the two. We talk about debt management, we discuss credit, what it is, why it’s important. We also go over what credit scores are and how they can access their credit reports. Other issues really vary between clients. We talk about financing college education with women that have kids who are in high school and who dream of attending college.”
Maria, who only recently switched from tracking money mentally to recording her spending and saving, is one of those women. Soon, she will be filling out the FAFSA for her son, a high school senior who hopes to become an aerospace engineer. Greisberger gave her information about financial aid that will enable her to help her son. Eventually, she will use her knowledge again to help her ten-year-old daughter, an aspiring computer scientist.
Carmela James had her first job in Belgium at twelve years old. Now, she works behind the deli at Lassens Natural Foods & Vitamins. She likes contributing to a business that promotes health, but she worries about her own ability to afford nutritious food. “I need to take care of myself and eat healthy food because if you’re not healthy, you cannot make it,” she said.
Carmela is confident in her ability to spend carefully and save money. “I’m not somebody who’s over-spending, I’m very careful with what I’m doing. I’m always looking for sales, good sales. I’m not buying something that I already have,” Carmela said. “You can make lots of money, you can make a million dollars, but if you cannot balance your money, it does not matter.”
Still, Carmela said, “The problem with money in America is you’re always out and always busy so you have to spend two dollars on something here, three dollars on a sandwich there.”
Carmela appreciated the counsel she received from the IRC about minimizing unnecessary spending and managing debt. When she first came to the U.S. with her then-husband, she relied on him to handle their finances. “I was trusting him, and I ended up with $40,000 of debt,” she said. In Carmela’s financial coaching sessions, Greisberger taught her more about saving and banking in this country.
Sometimes, helping program participants begin to save for the future is a simple matter of connecting them to the right institutions and resources. Before Alba Ramirez participated in the women’s economic empowerment program, she had never had a bank account. Now, she may be her bank’s biggest fan.
She loves the friendly employees at her bank, and she appreciates that many of them speak Spanish or Korean in addition to English. “In my country [Guatemala], I learned all the time, when you have outstanding service, people will come to you,” she said. “Everyone at my bank is very, very nice, all the time smiling.”
Alba is currently searching for a full-time job and caring for her mother, who has cancer, so she would not have had enough money to open a checking or savings account at most banks. But the IRC connected her with a bank that would let her open accounts to start saving. “Me, looking for assistance, as a Latino, as a poor lady, they [told] me, ten dollars every month, no problem,” she said.
Alba hopes to open a small restaurant and coffee shop someday, and now she is able to take steps toward her dream of owning a business. “Every month, I save $10 for my checking account, and $5 for my savings account,” she said. “I continue because ten dollars for every month for one year is a lot of money.”
The program’s goal is to empower low-income immigrant women to take control of their own financial futures, and for Alba, it has done just that. “For me, this financial education was a really good idea,” Alba said. “The idea is saving money. The idea is saving for you.”