Richmond’s Financial Freedom Conference teaches the basics of personal money management

Robert Shoffner, who gave the keynote address, said too many people are illiterate in the language of money.

Robert Shoffner, who gave the keynote address, said too many people are illiterate in the language of money.

Hundreds gathered at Richmond’s Civic Center auditorium Saturday for the Financial Freedom IV and L.I.F.E. Conference.  Healthy Community Richmond and Citibank have put on the annual conference for the last four years featuring panels and workshops on various aspects of personal finance.

Nikki Beasley, a branch manager for Citibank, taught a workshop about getting out of debt. She said a lot of information is available, but that people have trouble sorting through the bad information and knowing how to ask the right questions

“Too many of us are financially illiterate and don’t understand the basic language of money,” said Robert Shoffner, a senior vice president at Citibank and the keynote speaker.  He said this dearth of financial education starts during childhood, because kids often aren’t shown how to do basic financial planning like budgeting and saving.  “We get more instructions when we get on a plane and have the barf bag in front of us,” he said, “than we do when we get our first dollars.”

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin also delivered opening remarks.  She said that economic inequity continues to plague Richmond.  Official unemployment in the city continues to hover around 18 percent, although many say real unemployment is much higher.  Last year, approximately 2,300 homes were foreclosed on.  “We need equity,” she said. “We know that a healthy community is an equitable community.”

The day started with an egg hunt for children on the Civic Center lawn. Inside, dozens of community groups, churches and non-profits tabled in the auditorium. Workshops and classes on credit, foreclosure, debt, relationships, nutrition, jobs and homeownership filled the rest of the day.

Katrina Vizenau hosted a table for the Community Housing Development Corporation, an affordable housing non-profit, to answer questions about foreclosure and loan modification. She also taught a workshop on the subject, which she’s taught every year since the conference began in 2008. She said a lot of the people who are facing foreclosure don’t understand how to navigate the system of banks and lenders.  “They’re confused about the difference between the servicer, the investor, the lender and the bank, and then what their responsibilities are in that process.”

For a lot of people, she said, the prospect of losing one’s home is so daunting that the system is inconceivable.  “It’s a stressful time, an emotional time,” she said of the foreclosure process.  “When you’re in a stressful situation, your brain shuts down to where you can’t think clearly and your ability to focus is lessened.”

Nikki Beasley, vice president and branch manager with Citibank, said the conference provides a safe place for people to come and get the information they need to start fixing tough financial situations. “The community that we serve is intimidated, they’re afraid, and they don’t know which direction to go in,” she said.  She also said that it can be difficult to get the right kind of information, or even know what questions to be asking of their banks and creditors.

Beasley taught a workshop called “10 Ways to Dig out of Debt.” In her session, she stressed personal responsibility, starting with drawing up a budget, paying bills on time and taking a serious look at spending habits. For the vast majority of people, she said, identifying and changing individual habits and correcting the behaviors that led to debt in the first place is the first step toward getting out of debt.

After her talk, one participant, Tracey Mitchell, told Beasley she changed his life. “She just gave us basic points that we can actually follow and boiled it down to things we can do,” he said. “I’m an educator and a poet, but when it comes to budgeting and planning, that’s not my strong point. I’m terrible with my bills.”

Mitchell said he never learned the basics of managing his finances, and now that he’s 40 he’s not sure how to get out of debt.

“I’m one of those men who doesn’t even look at the bills, I just throw them to the side,” he said. “We need more workshops like this because we don’t teach this in the schools.  That’s really where we need to start.”

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