The Money Coach

 

It was the late summer of 2008, and Jim Goldman was sitting in a booth at the IHOP on the Berlin Turnpike. He ordered buttermilk pancakes, in part because, for a man who keeps kosher, this was a safe restaurant choice. He tried to read a page or two from a novel that he’d brought along, but he couldn’t concentrate. Instead he was preoccupied by two conversations.

The first was a discussion still fresh in his mind. He had just come from New London, where the mechanic who worked on his 36-foot sailboat, Patience, reminded him that life, even a financially secure life, is never entirely secure.

The weekend before, Goldman had been out with his son, Noah, on the Sound, and had had trouble steering Patience. Today, after looking into the problem, the mechanic had told him, “You must be doing something right in your life, because that steering cable was hanging on by a thread. You could have had a real problem out there.”

The second conversation was the one going on in the IHOP booth right behind him. A grandmother, her daughter and her granddaughter were talking about the wonderful day they’d just had, and how they wished they could go to the zoo tomorrow. But, he learned, they were flat broke. There’ was no way they could go.

As a financial professional, Goldman was all too aware that the story he was overhearing was one repeated over and over throughout the state and across the country. The Great Recession, as it would become known, was manifesting itself in ways not seen since the 1930s. Not only was a day at the zoo not possible for many, but, more importantly, neither was being able to pay the mortgage.

Goldman had been fortunate; in most ways he’d been untouched personally by this. Still in his 40s, he’d followed his father’s path as an investment adviser—specifically, a “wealth management” consultant—at RBC (Royal Bank of Canada). In his day-to-day work, he counseled many large companies on retirement plans. He and his wife, Amy, and their two children, Noah and Leah, lived in the West Hartford colonial he bought from his parents, and Patience provided him with weekend getaways.

Nevertheless, something was nagging at him. It was something related to the miracle of the steering mechanism giving him just enough control to return to safety, something about the fragility of existence.

He thought, “I should have learned this lesson by now.” In particular, he thought of a summer night many years earlier, when he looked out the window of his bedroom and saw a tree on fire—in a way, a biblical burning bush.

After calling 911, he hustled Amy and Noah—at that point Leah hadn’t been born—to the back yard. When he heard fire trucks coming, he ran to the front, not knowing that the fire in the tree had been ignited when it collapsed and fell on a transformer, knocking down power lines.

In his panic he didn’t see the lines on the ground, and stepped on one of them with both feet. A bolt of electricity shot through him, and he collapsed. Firemen watched in horror, certain he would die. But Goldman was able to crawl to safety and was taken to Hartford Hospital. He was later released, fully recovered.

In the booth at the IHOP, Goldman suddenly saw his good fortune as a revelation. Why else would he have escaped, unscathed, from yet another crisis—a traffic accident in Hartford, when an angry crowd wrongly accused him of running a red light but then a courageous witness stepped forward and told police that he wasn’t at fault? What message was it all sending? What was he to do with the knowledge of all these hanging threads, while at the same time he built his life around financial success for himself and others?

He knew he had to give something back. Perhaps he could start by using his experience and expertise as a financial adviser to those in distress, like this family—but how?

The first thing was obvious enough. He quietly spoke to the waitress at the IHOP and paid both his own bill and and the bill for the party in the booth behind him.

But he knew he could do far more than that. He went to his bosses at RBC and requested a permanent Wednesday leave of absence. That is, Wednesdays he would not come into the office. Instead, he would volunteer as a “money coach” at the West Hartford office of Jewish Family Services. He would do this not just for fellow Jews but for people of all backgrounds and faiths because JFS (this year celebrating its 100th anniversary) subscribes to the idea of tikkun olam, repair of the world, and opens its doors to all.
Goldman was surprised when RBC gave him the go-ahead; he’d thought that they might worry the company could be held responsible—with its deep pockets—if he gave bad advice in his volunteer role.

But so far nobody who’s come to a Wednesday counseling session has had such a complaint. Not the woman who found a measure of relief after being bilked by a financial scheme. Not the “older couple—the nicest people on earth, who came into the office holding hands”—coping with the embarrassment and anxiety of being saddled with huge debt for the first time in their lives.

And certainly not the man who came to Goldman fearful that he and his family were going to be booted from their home. In a letter, he had tried to persuade his bank to give him more time, but the response had been unsympathetic.

Goldman asked him to explain his story in detail. He learned that his client and his wife had refinanced their home in the days before the recession, intending to use the money so she could return to nursing school. But then he lost his job, and tragedy struck.

The couple’s young son died of a febrile seizure, suffocating in his pillow. The money they were saving up for nursing school had to be spent on a funeral, and there was nothing left to pay the bank. Goldman urged him to forget writing letters and go to the bank, sit down with an officer and show that person “the human face of this story.” The tactic worked—there was no more threat of eviction or foreclosure.

Much of the work of the money coach is focused on what Goldman calls “public enemy No. 1”: credit card debt. Sometimes his advice goes against instinct. For example, if a family has five credit cards with outstanding balances, he recommends not focusing on the one with the highest interest rate or the highest balance for the time being. Instead, he advises, pay off the one with the lowest interest rate or lowest balance, because that will begin a positive momentum.

The work as a whole has emboldened Goldman in his RBC efforts in that he has encouraged others to volunteer. Early this year, the company flew him to its Minneapolis headquarters so he could receive the RBC Volunteer of the Year Award. That piece of crystal is a reminder of the real rewards of what he does as a money coach at Jewish Family Services.

As he puts it, “It’s hard to come home from a day of volunteering and look at your 46-inch television set and say, ‘It’s not big enough—I need a 52-inch plasma.’ And a day when I can make a positive difference in someone’s life beats any day on the water.”
 

The Money Coach

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