Getting smart about money: Community Action’s Money Matters program is helping people turn their financial lives around

  • Rebecca Bannasch, coordinator of Community Action Pioneer Valley’s Money Matters program, at her office in Greenfield. Money Matters provides free financial planning advice to eligible low-income community members. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rebecca Bannasch, coordinator of Community Action Pioneer Valley’s Money Matters program, at her office in Greenfield. Money Matters provides free financial planning advice to eligible low-income community members. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Published: 8/17/2022 7:31:15 PM
Modified: 8/17/2022 7:27:48 PM

Nick Malo admits to making a number of unwise financial decisions in recent years, from buying a car he couldn’t afford and would eventually have to return to switching between three phone carriers and three mobile devices in a short period of time when he couldn’t pay the bills.

Then earlier this year the young direct care professional discovered Money Matters, a program offered through Community Action Pioneer Valley that provides free financial planning advice to eligible low-income residents.

Over the course of two appointments with Money Matters Coordinator Rebecca Bannasch and another staff member, Malo was able to chart a debt repayment plan that accommodated his biweekly paychecks. The first check of the month he agreed to set aside for bills, the second for savings; it’s a plan he still follows, referencing his notes from the meetings whenever he devises his monthly budget.

“Just having a conversation with someone who knew what they were talking about was enough to get me on that track, I didn’t even feel like I was having money problems, it was just like talking to a friend,” said Malo, noting that he didn’t grow up with an understanding of financial literacy, which contributed to his making a number of unwise financial decisions.

Money Matters offers one-on-one financial counseling to low-income individuals living in Franklin County, Hampshire County, or the North Quabbin. To qualify, participants must meet the following income eligibility depending on household size: $5,500 for a household of four, $46,060 for a household of three, $36,620 for a household of two and $27,180 for a household of one.

Bannash herself was once a professional nomad, having worked “crazy hours” at a bakery and doing costuming for a ballet company before arriving at Community Action through a slow arc of nonprofit work. The need for financial counseling is something she knows personally and a service she’s provided for years.

Disability, sudden unemployment, the loss of a loved one, the specter of a global pandemic — adversity of every kind all too often befalls the unsuspecting and the unprepared, said Bannasch.

A culture that places a premium on self-sufficiency, she added, only buries floundering employees deeper in shame — the shame of not having obtained financial security by a certain age, the shame of not bouncing back from financial derailments independently, and the remorse of not having sought financial advice earlier.

Helping to restore her clients’ self worth where their perception of themselves isn’t sullied by their debt is as much a part of Bannasch’s work as the technical help, like drafting a budget and chasing a tax refund.

“Financial education won’t fix poverty, you can’t budget your way out of poverty, but small steps are liberating and it always makes a big impact when you give time and space to talking about things people often don’t want to talk about,” said Bannasch.

Money Matters offers financial literacy education aimed at cultivating longtime financial independence — on a scale from what Bannasch calls “financial therapy,” which includes emotion regulation tactics to control impulse purchases, to stock-market based wealth management, Money Matters falls in the middle.

“We see a lot of different people, people who faced a recent financial upheaval, a lot of older folks with a fixed income watching prices become perpetually more expensive, people who’ve been giving room to breathe because their student loan repayment was paused during the pandemic — it’s about getting these people in the door,” remarked Bannasch.

As long as her advice is working, Bannasch doesn’t expect that former clients will return to her shop. “They find their feet and we don’t hear from them again, I take it as a compliment,” she said.

“Some of our clients cycle in and out, others we don’t hear from again, but it’s a sense of relief for both us and them when they’ve progressed past needing our advice,” she concluded.

After applying, participants selected have an initial phone consultation, where they will discuss their financial goals with an advisor. This session usually lasts 90 minutes and might involve learning about student loan repayment, talking through through next steps, pulling a credit report, building a budget, or simply getting support and accountability as they tackle whatever financial problems you face.

Money Matters staff are not financial advisors, so they won’t tell participants how to invest their money. They also aren’t financial therapists, and can’t offer direct financial assistance to pay back rent or utilities. 

People interested in participating in the Money Matters program can request an appointment at https://www.communityaction.us/money.


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