Pittsburgh Group Offers Budgeting, Debt Counseling for Pennsylvanians

Posted on 06/30/20 by Hilary Appelman

When Donald Jeter wanted to tackle his money problems, he turned to the Pittsburgh Financial Empowerment Center (FEC) for help.

“I wanted to get my credit together and get an American Express card,” said the 73-year-old Port Vue resident.

Jeter, a former chef, worked with a certified financial counselor to organize his finances, pay his bills on time and decide which debts to pay off first.

“She makes me abide by budgets,” he said. “That’s hard for me. My credit score is going up.”

The city of Pittsburgh, in partnership with Neighborhood Allies and Advantage Credit Counseling Service, opened the Financial Empowerment Center in May 2019. It offers free professional financial counseling to anyone age 18 or older. AARP Pennsylvania is helping to expand its reach.

Since opening, the FEC has served more than 500 clients in over 1,200 counseling sessions. Demand has increased in recent months, as the coronavirus pandemic has led to layoffs and other financial strains for families.

“People have all sorts of anxieties and questions that they’ve never experienced before,” said Jen Blatz, AARP Pennsylvania’s advocacy and community outreach director. “Now more than ever, financial concerns are front and center for many members.”

When the pandemic closed businesses, the FEC’s four counselors moved online, working with clients over the phone and on video chats. The number of callers has grown so much that the center has applied for a grant to hire an additional counselor.

“People need resources right now,” said Becky Johnson, the center’s program manager.

Older clients often worry that their savings won’t last through retirement. Some take side gigs to supplement, but those jobs are not available now because of the COVID-19 crisis, Johnson said.

The center has a list of financial resources at pittsburghpa.gov/mayor/FEC.

Services available remotely

The Pittsburgh FEC, one of several dozen such programs nationwide, has helped clients reduce debt by more than $160,000 and increase savings by more than $200,000.

FEC counselors can help individuals find housing or emergency assistance, open and learn how to use a bank account, or work out payment plans with creditors, among other services.

Before the pandemic, counselors operated out of a half dozen city locations. But the shutdown “forced us to figure out how we can offer this service remotely and opened up doors for us to serve people who we couldn’t reach before,” Johnson said.

AARP Pennsylvania has trained FEC counselors on consumer fraud education. It also recruits program ambassadors among older Pennsylvanians who are community leaders and influencers, said Henry Horn-Pyatt, economic opportunity manager for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s (D) Office of Equity.

“AARP has kind of been my street team,” he said. “When folks are dealing with these unique challenges, they reach out to people they can trust.”

The FEC has no income limit for services and no financial interest in any products, Horn-Pyatt emphasized. “Nobody’s going to try to sell you anything.”

To connect with a counselor, go to facebook.com/PghFEC, call 800-298-0237 or email fecinfo@advantageccs.org.

Hilary Appelman is a writer living in State College, Penn.

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This story is provided by AARP Pennsylvania. Visit the AARP Pennsylvania page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.

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You can find CDC’s latest coronavirus information at cdc.gov/coronavirus; AARP information and resources are at aarp.org/coronavirus. En español, visite aarp.org/elcoronavirus.

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