RACINE — It can be fun to dream about blowing your stimulus check on something frivolous: a shopping trip, a new television, a little weekend away, or some such thing.
However, the reality is that most people have bills to pay. For some, it feels like those bills have really piled up over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Racine’s Financial Empowerment Center counselors understand the challenge and are looking to help city residents really make their stimulus checks count.
The Racine FEC offers free, one-on-one, professional financial counseling to city residents over the age of 18 looking to take control of their finances.
The Racine FEC has two professional financial counselors: Xenia Jackson, a bilingual counselor, and Curtis Szymczak.
Dasheika Kidd is the program manager for Housing Resources and the non-profit manager of Racine FEC.
“Our counselors have thorough, extensive training, so they are certified to be able to provide this free service to city residents,” Kidd said.
Because the service is one-on-one, it is tailored to meet the needs of the client, whether that is improving a credit score, creating a budget, reducing debt, etc.
Tax credits and more
To begin with, the issue isn’t just about knowing what to do with the stimulus check.
For Jackson and Szymczak, it is also about making sure their clients are getting all they are eligible for.
For example, Jackson recently had a client who only received one stimulus check during the pandemic and that was for herself. She did not receive the other two checks and received nothing for her dependents.
She also did not realize the tax credits she was eligible for, including the homestead credit for being a renter.
All told, the FEC recovered approximately $10,000 in stimulus benefits and tax credits for this family.
The process took interacting with the government and filling out the right paperwork, which can be intimidating for some.
Vicky Selkowe, who is city manager for the FEC, said about 25% of the center’s clients did not receive the second stimulus check and quite few had not received their third check.
“Our counselors are trained and skilled in helping people access those payments that they’re eligible for and helping them figure out what to do with it,” Selkowe said.
Paying the bills
Secondly, Jackson and Szymczak are on hand for that big question: What is the best way to use the stimulus?
Selkowe explained the counselors will help people develop a strategy for spending the stimulus in a way that makes sense for them.
If a person or family has a pile of overdue bills — medical, student loans, credit cards — they may be asking, “What should I catch up on first?”
That is what financial counseling and coaching is really about, Selkowe said, having trained professionals help devise a plan to make the best use of those funds.
Just as one example, Selkowe noted it doesn’t really make sense to try and catch up on student loans, since there is a moratorium on federal student loans right now, if the rent is months overdue.
Secondly, the counselors can help people get the best bang for their buck by teaching them how to negotiate with credit card companies and others to lower their debt.
“People’s impulse if they get $10,000 might be to just say I’m going to pay off that $5,000 credit card debt,” Selkowe said.
However, those who use the FEC learn how to negotiate for a lower debt, in some cases.
Negotiating with the credit card companies might reduce that debt from $5,000 to $3,500 or $4,000.
“You wipe out fees that are owed on some of that or maybe some of the penalties so that you don’t have to just hand over $5,000,” she explained.
The point is to figure out a way to keep as much money as possible for yourself, which may include having the right financial institution holding the money.
That is what Szymczak called “being properly banked.”
Using payday lenders, check cashing places, or the kind of cards you can buy in convenience stores that leak money through fees or require the cardholder to call in to obtain their balance is probably not going to be the best option for people looking to make smart money management decisions.
Szymczak said finding the right local bank is the right first step.
Since opening in December, the Racine FEC counselors have helped their clients save more than $33,000.
People are sometimes suspicious of banks or perhaps they have had a bad experience, but Szymczak stressed the importance of finding a bank that works for the individual so they can save and manage their money.
To contact the FEC: www.racinefec.org and 262-200-0831
One of the challenging aspects of offering financial counseling are the cultural barriers.
People are raised to believe a person should never talk about money matters – especially outside of the family.
Jackson said within the Hispanic community, people are taught not to talk about money or to admit being in financial trouble — especially men.
It can also be hard for individuals to admit to strangers that they have lost control of their finances.
But the reality is, many people have never been taught to manage their money.
Szymczak took the opportunity to assure city residents no one at the FEC will be judgmental about financial mistakes and all information is 100% confidential.
“Everything is fixable with time and effort,” he said. “You take small, little baby steps, but you’ll get there bit by bit.”
Selkowe noted that people find themselves in financial situations that are overwhelming and they are afraid.
She assured city residents the FEC is a safe space “for people to work through those overwhelming issues, overcome those challenges, and make huge progress.”
Jackson said the important thing to remember is that a credit score is just an algorithm that predicts how likely people are to make the next month’s payment on time.
“It’s not a reflection of who you are as a person,” she said.
Everyone goes through hard times, she added.
“By making that first appointment, You took the first step in reclaiming your goals,” Jackson added.
The City of Racine applied to be a part of the national FEC effort to help city residents improve their financial stability and to increase home ownership.
Racine is the smallest city in the network of 30 cities and is the only city in Wisconsin to offer free financial counseling as a city service.
“For us in the city, this started with our focus on equity and helping residents overcome what we know have been long-term disparities in terms of wealth and home ownership and financial stability,” Selkowe said.