On a sunny autumn Friday, Bader Bahmad and fellow members of a financial education seminar at the Fort Washington Public Library branch were discussing rudimentary principles, such as the difference between needs and wants.
In a run-down conference room on the library’s deserted second floor, they talked about saving money. Asked to give examples of items they should save for, one woman mentioned a $7.99 blouse she saw earlier in the week and another said a pack of cigarettes. A talkative blonde said she has never saved for anything.
Cheryl Hines of Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension community program led the discussion. She provided handouts that explained the difference between short, medium and long-term savings goals; she offered tips for tracking money, like using a notebook to record expenditures.
Bahmad, 39, found the seminar a bit basic, but she liked the reminders because she and her three children are supported solely by her husband’s earnings as a taxi driver. She strictly limits spending on discretionary goods. “In every hour of the day, if I don’t need it, I’m not doing it,” Bahmad said.
Badmad’s struggle is complicated. In Washington Heights where she lives, families are lucky to have a bank account. While 12 percent of Manhattan households don’t have a standard checking account, 25 percent of African Americans and 27 percent of Hispanics in Manhattan – the majority populations uptown – live unbanked, according to a survey last year by Pew Charitable Trusts. In effect, they pay an average $1,042 annually in check cashing fees.
Bahmad has been trying to make ends meet in the U.S. for close to 15 years. An immigrant from Lebanon, she used to sew scarves and dresses for stores in Brooklyn and Manhattan. When she returned to her home country three years ago to be closer to her family, leaving her husband behind in New York, she sold her sewing machines.
But the distance strained her marriage, and Bahmad returned to New York after two years. “Here you’re missing something, over there you’re missing something,” she said.
Now back in America without a job, Bahmad is looking for financial advice. As a start, she attended the free seminar at the Public Library.
Instructor Milly DuBouchet, who teaches similar classes in Washington Heights, finds it hard to address intricate financial problems because her audience has never had the means to save money. “It’s hard for them to save 10 percent of their income monthly when they can’t necessarily pay their phone bill every month,” she said. “Financial literacy is at a bare minimum in our community.”
To help, the Bloomberg administration created the Office of Financial Empowerment, where DuBouchet also works. It offers personal finance workshops and free private counseling.
Lower-income people may lack a basic understanding of credit ratings and the principles of debt, according to DuBouchet. Many of her clients have been denied loans and “they want to see why,” she said. Moreover, “A lot of people consider credit cards quote unquote free money.” She tries to tell her seminar members and private clients how FICO scores are compiled and reminds those in debt, “If you stop paying it, they don’t forget about you.”
Workshops offering basic financial information can be found all over upper Manhattan. Friends Jenny Gil and Angela Ariza attended one specifically for women at City College. Both women, immigrants from Colombia, readily admit they know little about personal finance.
Gil, 27, is lucky to have less than $5,000 in debt, which she described as “not impossible.” She works in a restaurant office and is trying to repay what she owes so that she can start saving and investing – only she doesn’t know how.
She blames her financial illiteracy on Colombian cultural norms. She was raised with the belief that women don’t handle finances because they are too complex. “It’s the new days and now women take care of their own business,” she said.
Gil has done some reading on her own, like “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki, but still has trouble grasping certain fundamental financial concepts. To remedy the problem, she thinks personal finances should become part of the high school curriculum.
Donny Lynn Burton agrees. A vice president at the Harlem office of the non-profit Operation Hope, which offers seminars in credit and money management as well as individual credit counseling, she constantly meets people in similar situations.
Her clients live very differently from the middle class. “They live paycheck to paycheck,” Burton said. “They don’t understand the benefits of having an account” in a bank. She shows them how to create budgets and has them come in regularly to stay on track.
But often they start much too late, which she blames on pride. It frustrates her that most people in foreclosure know what lies ahead but don’t take action. ‘They never try to call their bank to work something out,” Burton said. She spends a lot of time assuring her clients that they can negotiate because the bank is better off if they stay in their homes.
She, too, would like to see financial education begin in high school, before people wade into major financial decisions.