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How virtual financial counseling is boosting people’s bottom line

When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March, Kristen Ramser, a counselor with Pittsburgh’s Financial Empowerment Center, did what most people who were able to telework did: She began working from home.

It was a big adjustment. The kind of one-on-one financial counseling Pittsburgh provides low- to moderate-income residents typically involves face-to-face interaction. Ramser’s clients would normally bring in copies of bank and credit-card statements and sit down with her to establish goals around boosting savings or paying off debt. Suddenly, these meetings were taking place through video chats on WhatsApp.

The shift to virtual counseling went better than Ramser expected. The troubles her clients often faced in lining up childcare or transportation to get to in-person visits vanished. And more clients are now coming back for follow-up sessions. Ramser and her three fellow counselors are able to serve more clients overall — and despite the COVID-19 economic plunge, they’re actually seeing clients make more progress toward meeting their financial goals.

“The virtual sessions actually helped,” Ramser said. “Our no-show rate has dropped a lot. But also the communication has vastly improved. I feel more connected to a lot of my clients, even though I’m not seeing them on a regular basis in person.”

Now, city-run services like Pittsburgh’s are about to get a big boost. Last week, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a $5.4 million contribution to the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund (CFE Fund), a national nonprofit organization that partners with local governments to deliver professional one-on-one financial counseling as a free public service. The support will help as many as 18 existing financial empowerment centers across the U.S. to add new counselors and continue what has been a successful pivot to remote work.

In addition, cities that don’t yet have full-fledged counseling programs are able to apply for grants to launch a “financial navigators” program. These are lighter-touch services that enable cities to help residents find answers to the many financial questions they have now.

Read more in a blog from Bloomberg Cities