Bronxites learn to save, a few pennies at a time

Jennie Cruz counts $33 in change that she saved in an empty orange juice bottle. Photo by Miamichelle N. Abad

Program in local housing complexes teaches lessons in thrift

Ualania Mack used to be a compulsive online shopper who relied on a stack of credit cards. Even her mail carrier knew who she was because she was constantly delivering her new packages.

At a recent financial planning workshop at the Classic Center on the grounds of Melrose Houses on East 156th Street, Mack stood in front of the group and pulled out ten credit cards. “I never saved for anything,” she told them.
Urban Upbound, the nonprofit that organizes and runs a series of workshops called Residents Can, estimates it has provided individual financial coaching for 100 South Bronx residents in six local housing developments so far, helping them pay the bills and reduce their debts. The program is funded by the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City.

Some residents came to the recent meeting carrying water bottles filled with change, as the organizers had challenged them to do.

The residents say the basic financial advice they are receiving is long overdue. The group’s motto, according to its CEO and co-founder Bishop Taylor, comes from a phrase coined by former President Bill Clinton: “Rich people have planners, poor people actually need them.”

But the effort to teach financial planning to people who have never been exposed to that idea isn’t easy. Many residents don’t see the point of talking about their finances when they don’t have much money to begin with, said Taylor.

The group tries to make it as easy as possible for residents. Shishana Evans, one of the financial coaches, goes to the developments so residents don’t have to travel. To join the workshops, residents fill out a ten-question questionnaire so a coach can figure out how to help.

One of Evans’ clients could not keep a written record of his spending, so she asked him to track all of his receipts over a month. “So he would come in for his session with a bag full of receipts,” Evans said. “We’d figure it out one by one; we’d categorize it and itemize it and then create a budget.”

Residents can make appointments via phone or text message, or in person. Dan Ping He, the program’s community engagement manager, said she encourages residents to come to monthly events at the housing developments the program serves.

Highbridge Houses resident Desiree Roman said that one day when she was shopping at Ashley Stewart, a saleswoman offered her a good deal—or so she thought. “They said, ‘Would you like a card that helps pay for everything?’ But they never told me it was credit,” said Roman. “They signed me up.” For months afterwards, the credit card company called to demand she pay the $322 they said she owed, though she says she didn’t even know that what she’d gotten was a credit card.

With the program’s help, Roman is now disputing the charge. She says her expenses include “paying rent from my supplemental security income check, giving my sister money, then paying the cable bill, my phone bill, and then buying dog food. She added that she’s waiting to hear back from a collection agency. After meeting with her coach, Roman said, she has started setting aside $80 in her savings account monthly instead of $20, as she used to.

Cassandra Bowling, who has lived at Melrose Houses for 45 years, said she had never received sensible financial advice until now.

“I’m just an average Joe, I’m not a big corporation and these people take interest to come out here and try to help these tenants,” she said, adding that her goal is to save $500 by Christmas. When she received a late charge from Macy’s, even after paying the bill on time, Urban Upbound advocated on her behalf. That advice helped boost her credit score three points.

Bowling now volunteers for the group and helps spread the word through motivational speaking. “You pay bills, you live, you pay bills and you die,” she told fellow residents at the forum. “What kind of life is that? You want to enjoy your life.”

Ualania Mack has figured out how to consolidate her debt—and now has another goal, besides shopping. Every year her family hosts an August reunion on her uncle’s land in Alabama. All of the family members are expected to pay their own expenses for the trip. Mack looks forward to riding the horses on her uncle’s property, and finally seeing his farm.

“I’ve never been, so I really want to go,” she said. This year for the first time, she just might.