OPINION | SAVE YOURSELF: Ex-prisoner had much to learn, now has much to teach

"No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don't have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have." (Seneca, Moral Letters)

I want the world to meet a personal hero of mine. He is in his 50s and started his first real job about four years ago at a manufacturing firm, GSI. In that time, he learned the job, started at the bottom, worked his way up to supervisor and is now included on the executive decision-making team. Why only four years? Well, he was in prison for 20 years, 14 of those on death row.

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Tim Howard has paid a debt to society that many who know him -- and his case -- believe he did not owe. When it became clear in a court-ordered retrial that the wrong man was on death row, he got one of those "How about we keep that felony but release you from prison. Capiche?" Whatever, capiche.

But this column is not about the legal system. It's about how a person who had never used a cellphone, who didn't have email and who got his GED in solitary confinement had to assimilate decades of change and build a life from scratch. He was able to navigate the "real world," land a job, excel at that job and, one of my favorite parts, manage to save 20% of his income.

He has made the transition from prison to the real world. So I thought this would be a great opportunity to share his wisdom to inspire other folks making a similar transition from prison.

Only five minutes into my interview with Howard, I realized that his wisdom was rare and powerful. His wisdom is not only for folks being released from prison. It is for all of us.

I started by asking how he did it -- how he defied the odds, got the job, opened the bank accounts, joined his company's retirement plan and opened an investment account. He was very quick to list the number of people who stepped in to help him get there, including his determined attorneys, like Patrick Benca, and his informally adopted "mom," Linda Bessette, who helped him open accounts, buy a truck and purchase a new wardrobe. Then there were Gina and Wade Radke, who own GSI. They enthusiastically offered him the job and, more importantly, the trust to advance rapidly at a pace reflecting his eagerness to be successful.

Before Howard got his job, Bessette took him immediately to open a bank account and taught him about direct deposit. He didn't know that most of us aren't paid cash at the end of the week, that it winds up in a checking account that he can see from this thing called an app that appears through a process called downloading on a mini-computer called a cellphone.

Bessette and Howard agreed that a certain amount out of each check would go into an emergency savings fund and about 20% into retirement accounts. Howard has resigned himself to the fact that he will be relatively poor the rest of his life. He wasn't accruing Social Security behind bars for 20 years. But he said he believes his saving is critically important to keep him from being destitute.

His favorite story from those early days involved figuring out his budget. He was uncertain in his ability to manage his account, so Bessette had joint access. He said that one day, she called him and said, "May I speak to you as your CFO and not your mom?" "Sure," he laughed. "OK, then, what's this daily Starbucks habit? What are you, a Rockefeller? Coffee three days a week. Tops."

I asked Howard if he had something he really wanted to buy. It turns out he is passionate about his side business on the weekends doing yard work, labor, hauling and moving. His indulgence? "Equipment. I wish I made enough money that I could buy a $500 tool or piece of machinery from Home Depot every week. Unfortunately, that is definitely not the case."

Right out of prison, with a loan from good friends, Howard bought a 17-year-old truck with nearly 300,000 miles on it. The loan was fully repaid in a year and a half. He could get to work and incubate his new business on the weekends. But as he rose in the ranks of his job and started making more money, people started nudging him to splurge and buy a new truck. Surely with all this money he was making, he could easily go out and spend $35,000 or $40,000 on a new truck. But at this point, he knew the value of $35,000. Instead, he would repair and maintain the one he had.

What luxuries does he have, though? Is it all work and all deprivation? After a long pause, he said: "You know what? I will tell you what I do have. Since I have owned my truck, I have never had the gas light come on. I remember a time when I was out of gas and digging through pockets and in seats to find coins to get enough gas in my tank to get home. I love the fact that whenever I need gas, I know I have enough money to fill up my truck."

I asked Howard what advice he has for folks exiting prison. He was direct. "Find a job, even if you only love it 50%. Then make it 100% yourself." Howard has mentored many people coming out of prison, letting them have a chance at working their way up at GSI and for him in his side business. Not everyone has worked out. Some aren't ready for how hard they are going to have to work and, for some who might have made more money before they went to prison, how relatively little they make for that work. I asked if he could sense who was going to make it.

"For me, I can tell by the questions they ask. 'How did you get to where you are? What do you have to do to be successful? What can I do to improve my skills?'"

I interviewed April Shannon, case manager, and Michael South, director at City of Faith, a federally funded transitional housing facility whose residents were formerly incarcerated in federal prison. What makes people successful and unlikely to return to old ways or to reoffend?

They emphasized the importance of depending on a support network, something that Howard would certainly attest to with his more informal network that he had. For City of Faith residents, they come out and have many tasks to accomplish. Finding a job is top of the list for 90% of the people. They want to make money. They want to be independent. Luckily for folks right now, with labor shortages there are jobs for anyone wanting to work.

But a big stumbling block? A bank account. Luckily, a relatively recent program called Bank On is standing at the ready. A coalition of 15 banks has a goal of helping the unbanked set up accounts and is happy to open accounts for folks just out of prison. The best part? The accounts are free.

That's the first hurdle, but even after getting over that hurdle is the reality that they probably won't be making much money. It's going to be tight. City of Faith encourages participants to make budgets in preparation.

A good budget is crucial, combined with a new mindset recommended by Mr. Howard.

There are many people, formerly incarcerated or not, who can find wisdom and inspiration to catch up on retirement savings, get out of credit card debt, or strive for financial goals like buying a house. Our lessons from Howard are these: Seek wise counsel and follow the advice. Save first, spend second. Spend only what you can afford. Wish for things only that are attainable within your budget. Celebrate your wins, whatever they might be, even if it's the luxury of never seeing that gas light turn on.

As John Donne reminds us, "Be thine own palace, or the world's thy jail."

Sarah Catherine Gutierrez is founder, partner and CEO of Aptus Financial in Little Rock. She is also author of the book "But First, Save 10: The One Simple Money Move That Will Change Your Life," published by Et Alia Press. Contact her at sc@aptusfinancial.com.

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