Changing lives with financial literacy: Q&A with CAH’s Tabitha Wolters

One of the ways Community Action House is working to eliminate poverty is by teaching financial literacy.

The organization recently shared how Tabitha Wolters, one of the Holland organization’s financial wellness specialists, worked with a client who had little hope for her financial future. 

The client was living with family because she had lost her housing. Her credit score was 523, she had thousands of dollars in collections and loans she couldn’t pay.

Over multiple sessions, Tabitha and the client worked through the steps necessary to meet the client’s financial goals. In the past two years, the woman was able to find an apartment, pay off numerous debts, and develop a sustainable budget. By this May, her credit score had climbed to 629. That meant that she could finally pursue owning her own home.

The Lakeshore asked Wolters to talk about how the organization is helping clients in similar situations.

The Lakeshore: For more than 50 years, Community Action House has provided a range of services for families and individuals, helping provide food, clothing, shelter, and the opportunity to build the skills to achieve a stable and prosperous life. What do you wish people knew about CAH services?

Tabitha Wolters: The Community Action House does a fantastic job engaging and welcoming guests.  We have a personal and inviting space, we partner with them to meet their goals, and we strive to treat everyone with dignity and respect. 

TL: One area that CAH helps clients with is rebuilding their credit. What are some of the ways you can help people with limited income become financially stronger and increase their credit scores?

TW: Our one-on-one financial counseling services support our guests by completing a spending plan together and reviewing their credit history. Then we create an action plan with their short-term and long-term goals. Our financial wellness staff provides support and accountability with these goals as well as giving financial tips to support them. A couple of tangible ways of building credit are to make all payments on time and to stay within 30% of your credit limit.  

TL: Often people who are struggling financially have a lot of debt that can seem impossible to pay off. How do you help your clients tackle their debt?

TW: Debt can be very overwhelming and even traumatizing.  To minimize this, we remind our guests that financial freedom is a marathon, not a sprint.  We break down their short-term goals into achievable action steps that they can take over a month.  The first step is to make sure that all bills are getting paid on time.  The second step is to develop a small emergency savings account.  The third step is to start paying off debt, paying off smaller bills one at a time and using the “snowball” effect to pay off larger debts.
TL: How long do you work with someone to turn around their lives financially and what are the benefits when they are able to complete your program?

TW: The amount of time we spend with our guests varies by their needs. Some of our guests only need one or two visits to recognize that they are financially independent.  Some of our guests work with us for over a year.  The average guest probably works with us from four to 12 months.  The goals to complete our program are to have a balanced budget and meet their own financial goals, which are different for each person.  Some financial goals might be an improved credit score, building a savings account, saving a home from foreclosure, or purchasing a home.  
TL: What are some of the success stories of your clients?

TW: I had a client come to pre-purchase counseling with high debt on at least six credit cards. With my encouragement, she made goals on what to do when she received her tax return and potential stimulus check. Her goals were to pay off debts and build savings. She was able to pay off all of her credit cards and is now debt free. She told me, "I feel so great and grateful that I got a stimulus to help me and for your help. I know I got myself into this mess, and with everything I was able to get out. I have learned a lot about myself, and I love the path I’m on right now."

We had a participant from a homebuyer education class who did not know where to start in the homebuying process. They were very scared and overwhelmed.  After taking the class, they gained confidence and realized that they could fulfill their dream of buying a house. Approximately six months later, they bought their first home in Holland.

TL: How can people qualify for help from CAH to build their credit scores?

TW: We don’t have any qualifications or income guidelines for our financial wellness programs.  All of our programs are free of charge and are available to anyone in our community who would like financial support.  

TL: Since opening the Food Club this year, how has that changed how you help clients?

TW: It’s wonderful to have our financial wellness services at the same site as our Food Club, as in previous years our team was at a different service site.  We can greet our members as we see them shop, and if shoppers have questions, we are right on site to answer them.  Our clients can also shop for food and have a financial wellness appointment in the same time frame, which is an added convenience.  

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.