Erica James, CPA, CFP®, has always had a passion for using her skills to make a positive impact on her community. Early in her career as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), she spent time working and volunteering at nonprofit organizations, providing accounting and tax consultations, and financial analysis. While she found this fulfilling, she wanted to provide more in-depth financial guidance and advice. This led her on the path to becoming a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™. Currently working at a wealth management firm, she continues to be driven by her passion for helping others, and her belief that “financial planning should be available for everyone.”
Today, Erica volunteers at Foundation for Financial Planning grantee, Britepaths, where she serves as a pro bono financial planner and mentor (a typical mentoring relationship is approximately 6 months). During the COVID-19 pandemic, she began working with Andrea, a 34-year old production assistant. At the start of the mentoring program, Andrea had a credit score of 571 due to having three charged-off accounts and one item in collections, totaling $14,000.
Fortunately, the pandemic did not cause Andrea to be furloughed or laid off. Working from home, she found significant cost savings by not spending money on her commute, not eating or going out, and not shopping for clothing and other items.
These cost savings, as well as the stimulus payment, helped Andrea and Erica to work towards their goal of settling past due debts and rebuilding Andrea’s credit. Together, they wrote letters to settle the smaller debts and came up with a payment plan for the larger debts. And as COVID-19 lockdown restrictions lifted, Erica helped Andrea focus on sticking with her new spending habits so that she could build a monthly savings amount for debt reduction into her budget and begin putting money into an emergency fund.
As Andrea’s mentor, Erica has found that “in addition to providing [financial] education, I was an accountability partner for her.” She often reviews Andrea’s purchases with her and reminds her to reflect on her budget and financial goals before making a purchase – not because she needs permission to spend but because she wants an objective sounding board. Recently, Andrea called Erica when she was at a car dealership, to discuss several financing options. Erica was able to walk her through the purchase and help her make a sound car financing decision that would fit her budget.
Working with two Britepaths clients so far, Erica appreciates the importance of understanding each client’s situation and meeting them where they are in order to have the most impact. Her first client, a high earner with a good job, lacked financial literacy, so much of their relationship focused on learning how to appropriately handle his income, maximizing retirement accounts, and developing a long-term financial plan. With Andrea, many of their focus areas are more short-term, such as budgeting, building money saving habits, and improving her credit.
Erica’s advice to other planners looking to become involved in pro bono would be to “remember that pro bono clients are a different type of client than high wealth clients, and we must meet them where they are. Empathy and understanding are helpful, and so is accountability. Sometimes, that means you get a call on Thursday night and your client is at a car dealership.”
“Remember that pro bono clients are a different type of client than high wealth clients, and we must meet them where they are.”
Helps client to:
- Review her budget and reflect on her financial goals before making a purchase.
- Rebuild her credit and reduce her debt.
- Build small, everyday money habits that will pay off in the long run.