Home Economics: Mount Airy group helps teach prospective homeowners

Kimberly Henry, a housing counselor with Mount Airy USA, talks with a client.

It is painfully clear to many experts that a large number of Americans are, for want of a better description, having trouble handling money.

Record foreclosures in the last six years are an indication that something is seriously wrong.

It's not just about housing, however, said Kimberly Henry, a housing counselor at Mount Airy USA, a community-development corporation in northwest Philadelphia. But that is where the lack of "financial fitness" is most evident to her.

Henry's job is to get folks ready to buy a home - the pre-purchase counseling that national and local studies have shown help keep people in their houses for the long term.

Anuj Gupta, Mount Airy USA's executive director, said an Econsult Inc. study conducted to determine the impact of the organization's pre-purchase program last year found that those who participated "do have a lower rate of foreclosure" than those who did not.

Still, the majority of people who contact the agency about the program "have a dream but they don't have a good idea about what they need to realize it," Henry said.

This is the thinking behind Mount Airy USA's "Smart Money Club," which has been meeting from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on recent Saturdays at its Germantown Avenue offices.

Information on future sessions can be obtained by calling 215-844-6021

Brett Parke, 26, of Mount Airy, single and a sales and service representative with an environmental services company, saw the flier for the program and decided to sign up.

"I make OK money, but sometimes I feel as if I'm spending it in the wrong places," said Parke, who also is in Mount Airy USA's pre-purchase program to buy his first house.

"I'm looking for guidance on how I can better budget, have better spending habits and better financial goals," Parke said.

One of the goals of the club, Gupta said, is to get "prospective home buyers ready to make the plunge safely and securely."

Although some of the nine participants, including Parke, are interested in buying their first home and are destined eventually for pre-purchase counseling, others have different reasons for becoming financially fit, said Henry, who runs the club program.

"One of our participants wants to be able to buy a car," she said. Others are homeowners in their 60s who are afraid of outliving the money they set aside for long-term care, or who have seen their expenses rise beyond what their cash flow can cover.

"They often can no longer easily pay their bills," she said, adding that none of those in the group appeared to be in danger of losing their homes through foreclosure, as many younger homeowners could be.

"The age and experience diversity of the group is what is really appealing about the club to me," Parke said. "Some of the people are around my age, and there is also one lady who is 55 years old and spending retirement money too fast and needs help planning.

"It's not just textbook stuff but real-life examples, especially from people who have made it further in life than others."

For those looking to buy a house, building a secure foundation of financial literacy comes first.

"They need to build up savings, repair credit, and develop a household budget and stick to it," Henry said.

Yet few know anything about credit scores and how important they are, she said. "They don't know that they should put at least 10 percent of their gross earnings into savings or to pay off credit cards with the highest rates of interest first."

Since the financial meltdown and the bursting of the housing bubble that precipitated it, obtaining credit has been more difficult.

Today, borrowers with low credit scores are unable to obtain pre-approval for mortgages or even get unsecured credit cards, Henry said.

Gupta said the Smart Money Club was based on the FDIC's "Money Smart" curriculum. The nine participants had to agree to attend all six sessions - two each month from July through September.

"We could accommodate more," Henry said, "but this is a good number because everyone is able to get individual attention from the two of us."

Each session covers a different module in the Money Smart curriculum. For example, "Money Matters" emphasizes developing a plan to achieve financial goals and the importance of saving.

"The curriculum uses a PowerPoint, but I'm a talker," Henry said. "We keep the discussions on track with activity sheets I distribute at the end of each session."

Although participants seem open to sharing their situations with the group, Henry said they try to personalize the experience for each of the nine.

"This is the first time we've done this," Gupta said. "It is a bit of an experience and we will try to tweak it."

Most of the experts say the way to increase financial literacy is to start when people are young.

Right now, Gupta is working on a proposal to provide financial counseling to college students, including how to manage debt.

"When many students get to school, they have never had a checking account," he said. "They also get hit by credit card offers on arrival and don't know how to make the right decisions about them."

Parke said the first two classes had already taught him a great deal about budgeting and sticking to it, and about the kinds of things you have to think of when applying for credit.

"No one ever teaches you these kinds of things," he said. "What you learn is that you have to watch every dime."


Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com, or follow @alheavens at Twitter.