Saturday, July 3, 2004

Careful budgeting helps couple out of a bad spot

Agency forestalls going on welfare

By Victoria Barber-Emery
Enquirer contributor

Beverly Ingram (left) of Accountability and Credibility Together helped Larry and Darla Groves get their finances in order after Darla Groves lost her full-time job as a secretary. ACT is a nonprofit group created in 1996 to respond to reforms in welfare

Thursday, Darla Groves graduates from a Great Oaks program to become a licensed practical nurse.

She plans to accept a job that will increase the family income by $40,000.

She and her husband, Larry, own their home in Price Hill, and they are almost debt-free.

Life is good for the Groves now, thanks to the help of a social service agency that works to help families stay off welfare and become self-sufficient. But it wasn't always that way.

Darla Groves is among the 1.8 million Americans who permanently lost their jobs in 2002. In 2003, the Federal Reserve found that more than half of U.S. households do not have adequate emergency funds to cover periods of unemployment.

Like many Americans faced with financial crisis, the Groves quickly had to learn money management and make lasting lifestyle changes to prevent their crisis from happening again.

The couple moved to Cincinnati from Tennessee to get better-paying jobs. Darla, 35, worked full time as a secretary at a hospital and Larry, 43, worked part time as a nursing home nurse's assistant while caring for their two children. The hours were comfortable, but they were barely making ends meet.

Then, Darla Groves lost her full-time job.

With two-thirds of the family income gone, the Groves couldn't keep up with expenses.

"At the time, our financial status was OK. We were paying the bills. We had a little overhead, but we thought we were doing OK," said Larry Groves. "And then Darla lost her job. It was unexpected. We didn't know what to do."

Outside help

The Groves sought emergency assistance from the local office of the state Department of Job and Family Services.

While there, they were given the option of going to Accountability and Credibility Together.

ACT serves families referred by the Hamilton County Department of Job and Family Services. Eligibility is based on family income of 150 percent of federal poverty guideline or less and dependent children 17 years or younger in the home.

The agency has a 98.2 percent success rate of keeping clients off welfare for at least six months.

ACT is a nonprofit group created in 1996 as a consortium of Beech Acres, Lighthouse Youth Services, Talbert House and the FreeStore/FoodBank to respond to reforms in welfare. It provides comprehensive, integrated and flexible services for clients throughout Hamilton County.

ACT receives state and county funds, as well as private donations. All of its services are free to eligible participants.

Through counseling and goal setting, caseworker Beverly Ingram at the ACT office downtown helped the Groves get back on track.

"They were at risk of losing their home," said Ingram.

"She (Darla Groves) was thinking of going back to school, and he was thinking of working full time, but they said they had some other things to do first," Ingram said. "So I challenged them and said, 'Why can't you do it now?' "

The Groves accepted her challenge. Darla enrolled in the Great Oaks nursing program, and Larry increased his hours to full-time to support the family. They attended budgeting classes at ACT to learn how to manage money and live on Larry's income.

They say the lifestyle transformation was tough.

"We thought it would be easy," said Larry. "But we had no idea how our life would change."

Darla said the ACT counseling helped them "take control" of their lives.

"Had we not been through what we went through, we would have never had these opportunities come our way," she said. "I would probably still be in the same type of job being unhappy because I couldn't move any farther because of my own lack of education."

Good budgets, good credit

Among other things, the Groves learned the importance of budgeting and keeping good credit.

Shortly before Darla lost her job, the Groves were $25,000 in debt. Darla requested credit reports, and they began reducing their debt by paying creditors off a little at a time.

"Each month we put aside money that we used to pay our bad credit off. It took us a year to get it all cleaned up. The first year was enough to purchase our home, and then it took additional time after that for people to see you are creditworthy," said Darla.

Now the couple pays their bills on time to avoid late charges. They save $50 a month by doing without cable and extra services such as caller ID on their phone. They get videos free at the library. They eat at home more often.

They save on groceries by using coupons and buying cheaper brands. ACT taught them the more expensive items are at eye level and the cheaper brands are below.

"I went to the grocery Saturday," said Larry. "I spent $158. I saved $110. Plus, I took a Thriftway card with me and turned it in to them. I got an extra 15 percent off my bill in cash. I came out with almost $25 in cash and went to Kroger and got some great deals there."

ACT vice president Carol Hettel says the key to surviving financial crisis and coming out ahead like the Groves is to address immediate needs but also develop goals for the future.

"We talk about money-saving goals," said Hettel. "Do you have aspirations for education for yourself? Do you want to buy a home? What is it that we can do to help you work this into your budget now to plan for the future?"


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