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Northwest Arkansas group celebrates 20 years of offering financial counseling

by Christie Swanson | April 30, 2015 at 3:00 a.m.

SPRINGDALE -- Poverty has a new face credit counselors must recognize to be effective, an industry leader advised Wednesday.

Susan Keating, president and CEO of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, led a roundtable discussion as part of the Credit Counseling of Arkansas' 20th anniversary celebration. A group of 28 people connected to credit counseling took part in the discussion before attending a luncheon at the Springdale Holiday Inn.

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"Many of the people in this country who are most vulnerable, most in need of financial education, are people we know," Keating said. "They are our family, our friends, our neighbors. They may be un- or under-employed, living paycheck to paycheck."

She pointed to four groups in particular needing extra attention: young people getting out of college carrying a lot of student loan debt, returning U.S. veterans, a growing immigrant community and baby boomers who have either retired or are getting ready to retire.

Joel Doelger, director of community relations and housing counseling at Credit Counseling of Arkansas, said part of the challenge is getting people to take advantage of the programs it offers.

The nonprofit credit counseling group has Fayetteville headquarters and offices in Springdale, Rogers, Bentonville and Fort Smith. It offers free credit and housing counseling, free seminars, credit report reviews and a debt management program. The group held 870 seminars, serving 29,000 people last year. The staff of 19 includes three full-time Spanish-speaking and one Marshallese staff members.

Part of the problem is educating the public it's OK to ask for financial guidance before they are in a crisis, Keating said.

It took $159,000 in credit card debt for Scott Huse to realize he needed to ask for help. Huse said he and his wife, Claudia, both had jobs and paid their bills on time, but never set a household budget.

Problems started after Huse started his own business in 2007-08 and was hit by the financial crisis. Money wasn't coming in and the couple lived off 10 credit cards.

"In August 2011, my wife said, 'No more,'" Huse said. "I knew I could get a job, but I just didn't want to fail."

They went to Credit Counseling of Arkansas, which outlined a debt management program with the credit card companies that lowered interest rates and payments. Three years later, the Huses were able to state they were debt and credit-card free and are planning a cash vacation to Mexico this summer.

They were also named Credit Counseling of Arkansas' Client of the Year.

"We learned budgeting was more freeing than limiting," he said. "There are a lot of people trying to out earn their stupid."

Rosalind Brewer, president and CEO of Sam's Club, was keynote speaker at the luncheon. She said the retailer tries to help small business owners and entrepreneurs work their way through some of the financial hurdles they may face. Programs include small business loans and financial guidance.

She's also chairwoman of the Northwest Arkansas Council, a private, nonprofit organization working to sustain and improve Northwest Arkansas as a top place to live and conduct business.

She said she's lived in the area for three years and seen instances of financial disparity.

"Those who have may only be living one paycheck away from the have-nots and the have-nots are trying to do better for themselves," she said. "When I think of the work of the council and the work of CCOA, we have a real opportunity to make a difference between the haves and have-nots in this environment."

Mike Robards, executive director of Credit Counseling of Arkansas, is also on the national foundation's board, said there are challenges ahead but he is confident they can be addressed.

"It will take our collective efforts to be successful in the next 20 years," he said.

NW News on 04/30/2015

Print Headline: Group celebrates 20 years of credit counseling

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