As Americans continue to struggle with finances, a consortium of financial planners will sharply broaden an annual outreach next month to consumers looking for free professional advice. The second annual Financial Planning Days, as the program is called, will be held on Saturdays throughout October in 31 cities across the country, up from 21 a year ago. The timing is acutely spot-on, judging from a survey that was taken this month in connection with the event; it reported that one in three Americans would be able to cover their mortgage or rent only for a month or less in the event that they lost their jobs. “We’re really losing the battle with money in this country,” says Martin Kurtz, president of the Financial Planning Association, one of the sponsors of the outreach. “We’re not getting better with money, we’re getting worse with money.”
About 2,000 consumers turned out last year, and more are expected this year. The program provides workshops and one-on-one counseling for people with a range of questions, including mortgage foreclosures, estate planning, insurance, budgeting, getting out of debt, income taxes, and college expenses. The 500 to 600 financial planners—the other sponsors include the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, the Foundation for Financial Planning, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors—will offer their services pro bono and are barred from soliciting clients, Kurtz says. The aim is to provide advice to traditionally underserved populations, but a surprisingly broad segment of the public turned out last year, including middle class and even some wealthy people, he says. “I wouldn’t say there was a preponderance of what we would call upper middle or wealthy people, but they do show up because they have questions,” Kurtz says. “They really don’t know where to go to get objective advice.”
They’re not the only ones. The survey of more than 1,000 Americans 18 and older, conducted by KRC Research, found that among those making $35,000 a year or less, nearly a quarter would be unable to make any mortgage or rent payment if they lost their jobs. Of those who indicated they wouldn’t be able to make their housing costs, nearly 25 percent had a high school education or less. And in a report published this year by the National Bureau of Economic Research that suggests a broad pattern of financial fragility, nearly half the Americans in a survey said they probably or certainly wouldn’t be able to raise $2,000 in 30 days.
People in such tight financial situations pose tough problems for financial planners, Kurtz says, since planners can only work with whatever funds are available. But it’s not always insoluble, he adds. Households often have more than one breadwinner, for example. “Rarely does someone come in and they have absolutely no choice,” he says. “It’s a matter of getting rid of some of the noise and some of the panic that may have settled in, and say, ‘What do you have to do?’” What’s important for someone in a financial crisis is to avoid making what he calls dangerous choices, such as moving to a new community where living costs are higher, or enrolling in an education program that might provide little or no benefit. Advisors can help analyze what may work and what may not, he says.