FINANCIAL COUNSELING

Nearly one in every two households in New York City lacks sufficient savings to sustain three months at the poverty level in the event of a shock to income like the loss of a job or an unexpected medical expense[1]. In addition, more than 13 percent of New York City households are “unbanked,” and 20 percent are resorting to alternative—and often predatory—credit products[2]. While this kind of financial vulnerability is most intensely felt by those living on low incomes, even those living above the poverty line struggle with debt and a lack of access to information and resources to help them achieve financial stability. 

Every year, more than 8,000 New Yorkers become clients of the City’s Financial Empowerment Centers to work on goals such as tackling debt, improving credit, creating a budget, opening a bank account and saving for the future. The Centers are run by the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs Office of Financial Empowerment (OFE) in partnership with community-based organizations, and offer professional, one-on-one financial counseling. Counselors and clients work together to understand the client’s current needs and create a roadmap for reaching their goals. There are over 20 Centers available citywide; counselors have provided financial guidance to more than 35,000 New Yorkers since the first Financial Empowerment Center opened in 2008.

Financial counseling works to empower clients with behaviors, mindsets and other tools for building long-term financial security. But achieving the goal of long-term behavior change requires sustained engagement by the client, making retention one of the most important factors affecting the success of the service. Client retention is critical—not only for the Centers in NYC, but also for cities throughout the country that run financial empowerment programs. Yet there are a number of factors, real and perceived, that prevent more sustained client engagement with financial counseling.  

Internal research conducted by OFE shows that between three and five counseling sessions are typically needed to begin to achieve results such as debt reduction—the most common goal that clients work toward at the Centers—and that, on average, the results increase with each additional session.

With the goal of client retention in mind, the Financial Counseling Services team asked:

How can Financial Empowerment Centers encourage more long-term engagement from their clients


Background

NYC FINANCIAL EMPOWERMENT CENTERS

NYC Financial Empowerment Centers provide free, high-quality, one-on-one financial counseling at over 20 sites across the city, including through a number of integrated partnerships with nonprofits and City agencies. To ensure quality and professional services, OFE developed a credit-bearing counselor training course in partnership with the City University of New York (CUNY) that is mandatory for all Financial Empowerment Center counselors.

The Financial Empowerment Center model includes four foundational paths toward financial stability: Access to Banking, Improving Credit, Reducing Debt, and Increasing Savings. Clients can enroll in any or all of the model’s Service Plans based on the four paths. To assess interim and long-term successes of financial counseling clients, the model includes 30 milestones to track clients’ progress, as well as eight outcomes to measure substantial changes in clients’ financial health. These measures are captured in an integrated database system that Financial Empowerment Center counselors use as a case management tool. Further, the database is shared, allowing OFE to evaluate the impact of services in a variety of delivery contexts and across all sites and providers.


Partners

 

The Department of Consumer Affairs Office of Financial Empowerment (DCA OFE, hereafter OFE) is the first local government initiative in the country with the specific mission to educate, empower, and protect individuals and families with low incomes. OFE creates innovative programs, products, and services for New Yorkers so they can build assets and make the most of their financial resources. OFE’s goals are to increase access to high-quality, low-cost financial education and counseling; connect individuals to safe and affordable mainstream banking products and services; improve access to income-boosting tax credits, savings, and other asset building opportunities; and enforce and improve consumer financial protections to safeguard financial stability. To this end, OFE works with government agencies, community-based organizations, philanthropic partners, think tanks, and the private sector.

The mission of Neighborhood Trust is to empower low-income individuals to become productive participants in the U.S. financial system and achieve their financial goals. Our work is guided by increasing evidence from the asset development movement that helping low-income people save is a critical ingredient in fighting poverty, and that the ability to save is linked to income, a connection to the mainstream economy, and access to basic banking services. Neighborhood Trust (formerly Credit Where Credit Is Due) was founded in 1995 in response to the financial disenfranchisement of the predominantly Latino immigrant communities in northern Manhattan. Our Financial Empowerment Integration Model is guided by a commitment to change financial behavior by making financial services and support relevant and actionable. This integration model has been a catalyst for consistent growth. In 2008, Neighborhood Trust shifted from being a local to a citywide organization; today we serve 6,000 New Yorkers at 40 sites across all five boroughs. In 2013, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity named Neighborhood Trust among the City’s 10 Most Innovative nonprofits seeking to alleviate poverty.