Jan 2019 – My office floor is quiet as I put down my steaming tea and open the filing cabinet. I withdraw a folder labeled Mr. C and blow scraps of dust from the cover. Plopping it on my desk, I opened it like a fragile artifact and read the first note:
Ten Student Loans…
Mr. C was one of my first coaching clients. We met in 2017 as he asked for help with these ten debts. Since I was still learning the US financial system, I struggled to look intelligent to someone older than me.
He was a man of 50 – an immigrant from Ecuador supporting his wife and step-daughter. His life experience was miles above my own, but my curiosity was growing, boosting my confidence, because the more I learned, the more I wanted to know.
The student loans weren’t his, they were his step-daughter’s… interesting.
Our conversation continued into a second session where we reviewed his budget. I’ve worked with less than five clients who had a substantial income, and he was one of them. Weighing in at $70k a year, his salary was in a different class than my own, thanks to his two and a half jobs. His money went to cover his wife’s spending – creating a source of friction between them – and feeding his monster mortgage. He was convinced consolidating his step-daughter’s student loans would make things easier.
Back in my office, I turn the page and take a sip of tea: DR FED Sub, DR FLD Usub.
At twenty-four years old, I was not seasoned enough to know how to consolidate student loans, but after 120 minutes with Fed Loan Servicing, I had a plan. If it wasn’t for that exhausting phone call, I never would have been able to meet with Mr. C for our third session:
My head pounding, I laid out the complex rules and choices he had to make. Although his English was limited, he was patient with me until the options were clear.
“Before we do anything,” I held up a hand, “I want to make sure we understand where the rest of your funds are, so we have a full picture. Let’s take another look at your budget.”
“Oh,” he sat up in his chair, “I remember there was something I wanted to ask you. I have $5,000 in savings.”
That was a curve ball. I put my pen down and listened as he told me about the $5,000 in cash stuffed beneath his mattress – literally. My heart skipped a beat. The funds were dedicated to rebuilding the basement so he could rent it out.
“I want to use that money before my wife finds out about it,” another curve-ball, “in your experience, would it be better to rebuild the basement and collect the rent money, or do something else with it?”
Once I’d blurted how important it was to use a bank account, I stumbled to the end of our session and scheduled another. I needed time to think. We had arrived at the crux of multiple issues in which my mind was drowning. With a pen and paper, I sketched out a puzzle.
Daughter’s loan consolidation – wife’s spending – mortgage payment – $5,000 mattress – basement rebuild…
There was a connecting piece somewhere… there had to be. I pinched the bridge of my nose and wandered between words. It wasn’t until our fourth session that I found the right one: family.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from being a financial coach, it’s that money goes where values are, not necessarily to the best investment. You see, the problem wasn’t his debt obligations, it was the fracturing of his family. The key was staring me in the face the whole time, and all I had to do was connect the dots.
Mr. C framed all of his financial troubles in terms of his family.
The loans made it difficult to be a step-father. Mrs. C’s spending made it difficult to afford the house. He didn’t hide his money in a guest bedroom for safe keeping, he did it because he couldn’t broach the subject, and the basement rebuild was nothing but his attempt to distract himself from a strained marriage – an escape.
When he arrived for our fifth and final session, he had a huge grin on his face. The sun was setting through the window as he removed his jacket and regaled me with the story.
At a surprise family meeting, Mr. C announced he would use the $5,000 to pay the largest and most costly student loan. At first, his wife was shocked to learn about the hidden cash, but listened as Mr. C described his offer. “It’s a show of goodwill,” he said, “to say how serious I am.”
Upon hearing the news, his step-daughter began to cry. She hugged him, thanked him, and promised to contribute more to the loans as well as the mortgage. His wife joined the huddle and an honest conversation about their finances ensued.
That moment lives with me as the day I learned what money is meant for. Consolidating would’ve made Mr. C’s life easier; building out the basement would’ve increased his income. There were several avenues we could have taken to make him a richer man, but none would have brought his family closer together. Only this one move could connect the pieces to achieve his ultimate aim – a happier family.
Back in my office, I finish my tea and hear my coworker arrive. I close the folder and slip it back into the cabinet. Every once and a while, I think back on that story to refresh my favorite piece of advice:
Next time you need to make a financial decision, put your money where your values are.