Meet the women who teach financial skills to the homeless

Getty Images | Spencer Platt

It's graduation night at the House of Hope, a homeless shelter in Lowell, Mass.

A small group of low-income women sit with their volunteer coaches, celebrating the completion of Budget Buddies — an unusual financial program that might just change their lives. Over the past 6 months, the women have learned core money-management skills, designed to make them economically self-sufficient and prevent them from sliding back into poverty. They've learned the basics of budgeting, banking and credit. And, perhaps most importantly, they've been given a rare boost in confidence.

"You have done something that a lot of people never do — never make a budget, never really put money away for savings, never track their expenses to see how much they are spending," Anita Saville, executive director of Budget Buddies, tells the women, leading a round of applause. "You are so far ahead of most of the people in this country."

More from The Story Exchange:
This woman created the Uber of legal aid
Meet the women who teach financial skills to the homeless
The unusual item that inspired this science entrepreneur's career path

Saville and Kathy Brough founded Budget Buddies in 2010, after meeting a few years earlier while volunteering on former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick's campaign. They quickly realized that they shared an interest in helping homeless women. Saville, a freelance financial writer and former editor for Fidelity Investments, often did advocacy work for women's rights. Brough worked in finance and operations for small businesses, and had volunteered for over two decades at an adult homeless shelter, the Lowell Transitional Living Center.

Together, they came up with a unique (and unfortunately rare) program to promote women's financial literacy: a series of 12 instructional workshops, combined with one-to-one coaching, over a sustained period of 6 months.

"A lot of women end up in poverty for a variety of reasons," Saville says. "Their families have been living in poverty for years and years. They have little financial education. Then you couple that with…poor role models, lots of personal financial challenges, and women are just overwhelmed."

From her many years working with the homeless, Brough knew that case managers at agencies and shelters have little time or resources to teach financial basics. "They have like 40 clients each," she says. "They can't possibly talk about money."

Saville and Brough approached shelters and community-service agencies, including Habitat for Humanity and Head Start, to share their idea, and successfully signed up many as partners. They slowly developed the Budget Buddies curriculum, which includes one-hour group workshops every other week.

A key part, they learned, was pairing homeless women — dubbed "buddies" — with volunteer mentors, who pledge to meet with their buddies every other week for 6 months, helping the women apply what they learned from each workshop. "We know of no other program where there are volunteer coaches that are dedicated just to the women, one-to-one," Saville says.

The coaches, all of whom are female, come from all walks of life, including teaching and nursing. "You don't have to have a financial background to be a coach in Budget Buddies," Brough says. "You just have to care about helping women."

Building Budget Buddies

For the first 5 years, Saville and Brough, who live near each other in Chelmsford, Mass., ran the program without an office, meeting for strategy sessions in Brough's family room or a cafe called Owl Diner. Neither quit their day jobs. They used their activism connections to recruit volunteers and raise funds.

"Coming from a corporate background, it's been interesting to me how much help there is out there for nonprofits," Saville says. Early aid was provided by the Jericho Road Project, which in 2012 helped the two structure Budget Buddies as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3). That was an important step, as it allowed them to seek grants from state agencies, family foundations and individuals.

Saville and Brough also attended workshops at a local bank, Enterprise Bank, to learn the basics of running a nonprofit — something neither had done before. "The first couple years, it's hard to convince funders that you're going to be around," Saville says. "You're running on volunteer fumes, you don't have any money, and how are you going to be sustainable?"

But the numbers soon spoke for themselves: Budget Buddies has now run 35 programs at 19 different agencies, helping an estimated 400 women. About 70 percent of the "buddies" who leave the program say they feel confident about their abilities to manage money, compared with just 20 percent when the program starts, Saville says. "It's stunning to us the changes in the buddies from the time they come into the program to the time they leave."

Budget Buddies

Among the many "success" stories is Marissa, who arrived at House of Hope when her daughter Gina was 7 months old. Marissa, who had worked in retail, had lost income because she had no maternity leave benefits; she soon couldn't afford rent. In a testimonial on the House of Hope site, she calls the Budget Buddies program "the very best education" she could have received while in transition. "In order to have a stable family and stay out of homelessness, you need to be able to manage your money," she says. Marissa now lives in her own apartment and has a network of support to help her juggle daycare and work.

Looking ahead

Saville and Brough have been able to secure donations from the Theodore Edson Parker Foundation, Eileen Fisher Inc., and the Massachusetts state treasurer's Financial Literacy Trust Fund. They also hold an annual fundraiser. Thanks to Brough's conservative management of funds — "Some say 'cheap.' I say 'frugal,'" Brough jokes — Budget Buddies now runs on a lean annual operating budget of $363,000. That's enough for the founders to draw a modest full-time salary, plus pay for an office and a small but dedicated staff. Locally, "we've become more of a household name," Saville says, which has allowed them to recruit and train more than 275 volunteers.

In 2016, Budget Buddies was selected for the Social Innovation Forum program, a Boston organization that helps nonprofits increase their impact. Saville and Brough have an ambitious goal that they refer to as their "20/20 Vision" campaign, which includes training local agencies in Boston and beyond to run their own programs based on the Budget Buddies curriculum. They hope to to find resources to run 20 direct service programs and 20 affiliate programs by the year 2020.

While they now have staff and committed volunteers, Saville and Brough still attend every first workshop — and every graduation ceremony 6 months later to witness first-hand the change in the women's confidence. "Personality wise, someone who couldn't look you in the eye to begin with is talking away at graduation about how wonderful her coach was," Saville says. "It's really very emotional."

This originally appeared on The Story Exchange.

Don't miss: My 3-year obsession with one free budgeting app helped me save over $15,000