By Maria Luna-Medina, CWIC; Financial Coach and SSA Benefits Counselor, ServiceSource Delaware
FinanceABILITY is a partnership between ServiceSource and StandByMe of Delaware, a successful financial coaching initiative in Delaware. ServiceSource Delaware (SSDE) integrates Social Security Administration (SSA) benefits counseling within the StandByMe model, resulting in FinanceABILITY – a comprehensive and an innovative financial empowerment program designed specifically to meet the needs of people with disabilities in Delaware.
What makes your program unique?
While people with disabilities experience the same gaps in financial knowledge as all people, some receive SSA benefits that complicate their path toward achieving financial stability and developing personal resources. FinanceABILITY works with people to open bank accounts, build savings, pay down debt and improve their credit score while simultaneously ensuring that those that receive a public benefit are in compliance with SSA rules and regulations and providing assistance accessing SSA work incentives.
FinanceABILITY Coach Maria Luna-Medina is certified as both a Personal Financial Coach (through StandByMe), and Community Partner Work Incentives Counselor (though training sanctioned by the SSA). In addition, Maria is also bilingual (English/Spanish), which is an incredible asset to increasing access to FinanceABILITY.
FinanceABILITY can be provided as a standalone service or in combination with other programs and services. At SSDE, FinanceABILITY is embedded with our other work readiness, job training, school-to-work transition and job placement services. Providing FinanceABILITY in tandem with these employment services naturally increases our participants’ motivation to both gain financial skills and the means of increasing their earned incomes. FinanceABILITY is also provided through partnerships with other disability service providers, including Delaware’s Divisions of Vocational Rehabilitation and Developmental Disability Services, as well as private organizations like Independent Resources, Inc.
What are some of the challenges you experience with your program?
Our two primary challenges are the general public’s knowledge of the importance of basic financial skills and sustaining FinanceABILITY.
While awareness has been growing in recent years around the lack of financial preparedness among all people, it can still be a struggle to get the attention of those we serve, their families and case workers, that financial skills are equally as important as independent living skills, work readiness, job skills, etc. Quite frankly, until most SSA beneficiaries begin working, they don’t stop to consider the implications of employment on their SSA disability benefits and the SSA work incentives available to help them transition into employment.
How do you sustain your program?
Sustaining the program financially is also a significant challenge. Embedding FinanceABILITY within existing programs offsets some program costs, and the service is also approved under Delaware’s Home & Community Based Medicaid Services (HCBS) for youth and young adults (ages 14 to 25). We typically receive a few small grants each year. Beyond those small sources of support, SSDE is self-funding the program. We believe that increasing the financial knowledge and skills of those we serve is essential to achieving our mission.
Looking into the future, how do you envision your program?
Not surprisingly, our vision for the program dovetails with the financial challenges noted above. We are hopeful that, over time, more service funders will come to share our commitment to ensuring that people with disabilities are able to acquire the financial knowledge and skills that really are essential to independence, self-sufficiency and living full and meaningful lives. In the near future, we are hopeful that, based on Medicaid’s inclusion of financial education and benefits counseling as approved services for youth and young adults with disabilities who receive public assistance, it will pave the way for these services to be approved for all recipients of Medicaid Home & Community Based Services.
As a disability organization, why do you see the need to offer this program?
Having access to these services empowers people with disabilities with the knowledge, tools, resources and someone to stand by their side as they work to increase their independence, self-sufficiency and financial well-being. The program empowers them to make informed decisions and, in tandem with employment services, understand and better value the financial implications of working as a way of achieving their life goals (living independently, buying a home, etc.).
Can you give some examples of your successes?
On average, FinanceABILITY conducts 400 coaching sessions and serves approximately 250 individuals. We also continuously work to build new partnerships in the community to reach more people. For example, FinanceABILITY recently partnered with the local Veterans Administration Hospital to host a 2019 Summer Financial Literacy Workshop Series providing training for veterans with disabilities on budgeting techniques and tools, savings, credit and SSA disability benefit work incentives. We also assisted these veterans individually to develop budgets, access their credit reports and establish savings (which for many of them was the first time they had ever started accumulating resources for the future).
Is there an individual’s success story that you would like to highlight?
Robbie, age 28, lived at home with his parents because his only income was from SSA disability benefits, but he was determined to get a full-time job to make more money and live in his own apartment. Robbie began working with FinanceABILITY in 2016, establishing three goals: 1) get a job, 2) get off Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and 3) live independently.
Shortly after he started the coaching program, Robbie met his first goal: with support from Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) he got a new full-time job in August 2017 that offered employee benefits and, after six months on the job, he got a promotion and met his second goal of no longer relying on SSI benefits. He also began to build his savings. His coach guided him in the use and management of credit to help build his credit history and increase his credit score. Over the next two years, he applied for a secured credit card, resolved an overpayment with the SSA and paid down his student loans. All his hard work resulted in increasing his credit score to 763. Robbie increased his savings to $39k by July 2019 and is paying off his student loans; he plans on becoming a first-time home buyer in 2020.
Maria Luna-Medina, CWIC; Financial Coach and SSA Benefits Counselor, joined ServiceSource Delaware (SSDE) in 2013 with a BS in Human Development & Family Studies from the University of Delaware. Maria provided job readiness training, job placement and coaching at SSDE prior to assuming leadership (2015) for FinanceABILITY; a collaboration between SSDE and DE’s StandByMe that provides financial coaching integrated with benefits counseling for people with disabilities throughout Delaware. In 2019, Maria fulfilled her goal of becoming a qualified Community Interpreter (English/Spanish). She is passionate about helping others, making a difference in people’s lives and giving back to her community. To learn more about the FinanceABILITY program, please visit www.servicesource.org/service/financial-coaching/.