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Dollars & Sense

Debt counseling and financial education are timely, low-cost benefits.


From the January 30, 2009 Philadelphia Business Journal.

Certified public accountant Maureen Mergen posed a metaphysical question to a room full of people concerned about their financial future.

"You need to ask yourself, 'What do I really want in life?'" she said.

Her message to the group - about a dozen employees from Pennsylvania Careerlink who are participating in FAN Club, a financial literacy training program run by the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition with volunteers from the Pennsylvania Institute or Certified Public Accountants - was rather simple: you need to spend what you have wisely, if at all.

"During this difficult interim, we're going to have to learn how to live differently," she told them.

The class was one of numerous financial training sessions happening around the region in the wake of the global economic crisis. With markets faltering, unemployment rising and overall financial uncertainty, businesses are increasingly seeking ways to help their employees maximize the income they have, and to traverse the murky waters ahead.

"We've definitely seen somewhere between a 40 to 50 percent increase in requests over the last six months," said Alethia Calbeck, director of education programs at the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Delaware Valley (CCCSDV).

The 42-year old non-profit organization offers credit and other financial training to individuals, companies and organizations, including universities.

"People are coming from a proactive place," she continued. "They want to be able to provide information and resources to employees or students in way that will prevent them from getting into financial crises."

Along with CCCSDV, several non-profit organizations offer debt management, basic investing and retirement planning programs at minimal or no cost.

Since the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants' "Money & Life" training program began in 2006, dozens of organizations and companies of various sizes have taken advantage of the free financial seminars, including Hershey Entertainment and National Ticket Company.

"It's a double benefit," said Leon Dutkiewicz, a principal at Margolis & Company in Bala Cynwyd and an active member of PICPA. "The goal is to help the employees. For the employers, you're allowing them to offer a benefit they wouldn't offer otherwise. It doesn't cost anything."

Volunteer CPAs customize sessions to the requests of the client but most seminars revolve around personal budgeting, establishing financial priorities and understanding debt.

"The overall goal is to help them identify goals, whether it be saving or cutting cost, and the long-term budgeting for things like education or retirement," said Dutkiewicz.

In a November poll, the Society for Human Resources Management found that 83 percent of 450 human resources professionals surveyed said their companies would consider providing employees with financial education or workshops this year.

The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans found that 43 percent of 972 companies polled already offer employees some sort of financial education or financial literacy training.

Sharon Burns, IFEBP's senior vice-president of knowledge and content management said, "People are saying, 'Hey, we do need to help our employees.'"

The survey was conducted in the spring and released during the summer, prior to the market collapse of the fall.

"There's a lot of anecdotal evidence that it's picking up," she added. "I think there is an expansion of companies offering a program where they didn't before."

Many companies, she said, are adding financial hotlines as part of employee assistance programs, while other companies are bringing in paid advisors to counsel staff.

David Yarnall, president of IT Acceleration in Wayne, PA, feared the recession could burden his  12 employees so he contracted Nicole McInerney of Dollars & Sense Education to consult in December.

"It was an attempt to provide our employees some insight on how to manage their expenses because we're obviously not going to be in a position to increase their compensation," Yarnall said. "It was basically more of an education for our employees - and the company as well - to better understand what we can do to limit our outgoing cash."

The eight-year old technology management and forensic computing firm had never offered financial training beyond investment plan vendors in the past.

"It was more of a goodwill gesture," Yarnall said. "But you could help an employee deal with certain stresses, up to potentially saving them from filing for personal bankruptcy."

Philadelphia-based McInerney has been contracted to run financial seminars at law firms, advertising agencies and small businesses throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

"My gut feeling is that prior to the financial crises, some companies said this type of training wasn't really needed," said McInerney. "Now they say it's necessary but many companies don't have a whole lot of money."

Michael Gombola, head of the finance department at the LeBow College of Business at Drexel University, acknowledged that while there is probably more need for financial literacy training, economic realities might limit what businesses can offer.

"It's more difficult to provide these kinds of employee benefits when they're more financially constrained themselves," he said. "They're laying off employees right and left, so you wouldn't expect them to be spending more money on employee services in a really tight economy."

To remedy such situations, Texas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson introduced the Employers Financial Literacy Act last spring. The bill would provide small businesses a 35 percent tax credit to cover the cost  of financial literacy training for employees.

"We've grown to see so many people overwhelmed with debt who hardly know how they got there and don't know how to get out," Representative Johnson said.

The congresswoman began drafting the bill after hearing from constituents left reeling after the mortgage crisis and ensuing lending crisis. The autumn market collapse only increased her sense of urgency.

"There is a lot of fear and anxiety in the community," she said. "People are fearful of what we're yet to face. It's going to be a lot worse before it gets better."

The legislation was offered to the Committee on Ways and Means, as well as the Committee on Small Businesses, and may go up for a House vote this session.

Having an educated individual creates the foundation of a robust economy, Johnson believes.

"There is a relationship between producing goods, getting paid, paying bills, paying employees, making loans, and determining how much of a loan you can make," she said.

Consumers without proper knowledge drum up debt they can't pay, she said, and that cripples the system.           

"All of us are aware of how much this information and training is needed," Johnson said.