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Money & Policy

Where to Get Good, Free Financial Advice Now

How to find financial advisers offering pro bono help in the pandemic


Part of the The Coronavirus Outbreak: What You Need to Know Special Report

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” This quote by Fred Rogers, the soft-voiced creator of PBS’ Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, couldn’t be more apropos today. Thankfully, personal finance helpers are stepping up to lend a guiding hand gratis to those who need it due to the pandemic.

The need is great.

Millions of Americans have lost their jobs, had to shutter their small businesses (possibly forever) or seen their retirement accounts shrink drastically. An April 2020 online MassMutual poll of 1,000 Americans revealed that nearly a third of boomers and Gen Xers (29% and 32% respectively) say they’re stressed about their personal finances. And a recent Gallup Poll found that half of Americans surveyed age 50 to 64 are worried about maintaining their standard of living.

“I looked at where I could help, and financial planning is one of the most impactful ways to change people’s lives.”

Recent history suggests a potentially frightening financial future for older adults. A look at economic ripple effects of the Great Recession of 2008-2009, from the National Council on Aging and LeadingAge LTSS Center @UMass Boston, found a drop in total net wealth and an increase in debt for people 60 and older.

Struggling With Daily Expenses

“Unfortunately, many Americans have been financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and market downturn and are struggling with day-to-day expenses,” says Teresa Hassara, head of workplace solutions at MassMutual.

Propelled by the rough financial times due to the coronavirus crisis, a smorgasbord of free financial advice and guidance is now available — ranging from one-on-one virtual financial planning consultations to employers opening up helplines for employees.

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“I needed a way to give back in a meaningful way,” says Kristen M. Buchanan, a financial planner at Cincinnati Investment Advisors. “I looked at where I could help, and financial planning is one of the most impactful ways to change people’s lives.”

Kristen Buchanan
Kristen Buchanan

Buchanan signed on to offer free counseling through The Financial Planning Association, the principal membership group for Certified Financial Planners (CFPs). It now has a roster of more than 60 volunteer CFPs around the country on its site. They’re providing short-term guidance to those who need it due to the pandemic. You can call or email to set up a meeting.

Many people want that kind of help.

Looking for Financial Advice From a Professional

In the new 2020 Financial Literacy Survey from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and Discover Financial Services, 75% of U.S. adults ages 55 to 64 and 68% of those 65 or older said they could benefit from advice and answers to everyday financial questions from a professional.

Buchanan told me that most of her pro bono sessions have revolved around basic budgeting.

“A lot of the people are worried about ‘How am I going to get through this pandemic and pay bills?’” she says. “If I can alleviate some of that stress and get them to have some understanding about their finances and how to live without constantly worrying about money, that’s my reward.”

Maura Griffin, founder of the Blue Spark Financial advisory firm in New York City and Lenox, Mass, has started hosting free, regular 45-minute Zoom calls to answer questions. “It is something I will continue to do, on a monthly or quarterly basis, even after the pandemic,” she says.

“The questions are varied,” Griffin notes. “Many are about things like what the PPP (the federal Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses) loans cover; how to approach creditors and what to do with the $1,200 stimulus check.”

A Historical Perspective Can Help Ease Nerves

Griffin offers perspective, too. “I also talk about history of market turmoils and give solace that we’ve been here before, just a different set of circumstances.”

“They are coming with a particular pain point they want to address, and typically have been impacted directly by job loss.”

The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors also has on its site a growing list of more than 50 fee-only planners (they don’t charge commissions) offering pro-bono services.

And The Association for Financial Counseling & Planning Education (AFCPE), along with the Wells Fargo Foundation and the nonprofit military assistance group Yellow Ribbon Network, is now offering free virtual counseling and coaching sessions to people who’ve experienced a negative change in income and/or budget due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Our counselors are fielding a lot of questions about the stimulus checks, how to navigate through job loss and unemployment, and how to get out of debt, improve credit and create a budget and spending plan to navigate through this uncertain time,” says Rebecca Wiggins, AFCPE’s executive director.

‘No Question Is Too Big or Small’

“No question or issue is too big or too small,” Wiggins says. “People can come if they just have questions, want to finally get some assistance to make a realistic budget or if they are really struggling and don’t know where to even start.”

Rebecca Wiggins
Rebecca Wiggins

AFCPE also offers links to free COVID-19 financial resources on its site.

More than 90 members of the XY Planning Network (XYPN), an organization of fee-only financial advisers, are now available to help people with free emergency financial planning virtual consultations.

“We recognized the impact COVID was going to have on the economy and our advisers (who usually charge $200 to $300 an hour) stepped up and said this is something we’d like to offer,” says XYPN co-founder and CEO Alan Moore. “So far, there have been a lot of cash flow questions, queries on how to apply for unemployment and ‘Should I be taking money out of my 401 (k)?’ They are coming with a particular pain point they want to address, and typically have been impacted directly by job loss.”

Free credit counseling agencies can also assist with problems ranging from bankruptcy to student loan debt to an evaluation of your budget and financial picture. A good place to start is The National Foundation for Credit Counseling website.

Employees can also see if their employers are offering free financial counseling, perhaps through their Employee Assistance Plans.

Potential Government Benefits

Dawn Santoriello
Dawn Santoriello

Finally, on Benefits.gov, a federal agency partnership site, you can find government benefits related to unemployment assistance, health care and food and nutrition. Its Benefit Finder tool will let you see if there are government benefits you may be eligible to receive.

If you’re feeling shaky about your finances, don’t be too proud to ask for help. Your future financial security is at stake.

“Many people really need guidance right now on setting up a budget and managing credit card debt. And that’s why I am a financial planner,” says Dawn Santoriello, president of DS Financial Strategies in King of Prussia, Pa.

She’s offering free sessions to those in need, too. “My goal is to give someone peace of mind, make sure he or she is on track. It’s the right thing to do.”

Mister Rogers would approve.

Kerry Hannon
By Kerry Hannon
Kerry Hannon is the author of Never Too Old to Get Rich: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Starting a Business Mid-Life. She  has covered personal finance, retirement and careers for The New York Times, Forbes, Money, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today, among other publications. She is the author of a dozen books including Money Confidence: Really Smart Financial Moves for Newly Single Women and What's Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond. Her website is kerryhannon.com. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.

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