Gifts galore will be wrapped in festive paper and trimmed in colorful bows on Christmas morning, nestled under the tree just waiting to be opened amid wide-eyed amazement and big smiles.
But, it won't be long after Santa Claus has gone and the warm feelings subside, that there will be a price to pay. Some of us out there will handle the holiday bills with ease, while others will feel the financial noose draw ever tighter.
That's when Rob Pitts and the Consumer Credit Counseling Service (CCCS) of West Georgia/East Alabama stand ready to help. The true busy season for the Columbus-based nonprofit agency and its counselors will kick off in January and linger into February and March.
Pitts, director of the CCCS, readily concedes he never contemplated working for a nonprofit entity. After all, the Columbus native spent 17 years in the for-profit world of banking, followed by several more years as a radio station sales manager.
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But all of that changed more than four years ago as the recession prompted cuts at his previous employer, giving Pitts time to unwind a bit and make the fateful decision to head in a very different direction. And he hasn't looked back at all.
The Consumer Credit Counseling Service, launched in 1986, falls under The Family Center of Columbus, which also includes a Family Counseling service, the Families and Schools Together program and Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Altogether, the four programs touch more than 10,000 lives each year, with the Consumer Credit Counseling Service alone impacting more than 3,000 of those. And even though the Great Recession is fading in the distance, the need for the financial assistance is as great as ever, said Pitts, who is more than happy to help.
"I was familiar with CCCS when I was in banking, and I had actually done some fundraising for them back then," he said of his career switch. "It just seemed like a really good fit with my financial background and the emphasis that they put on education and service."
Pitts, 52, took time out from his schedule recently to discuss his job, how emotional it can be at times, and how his agency helps area residents loaded with debt get back on a sound financial track. This interview has been edited a bit for clarity.
You were in commercial bank lending at one point. That's a different world, isn't it?
Everybody that gets into banking wants to be a commercial lender because they pay better and it's more glamorous. I actually, in retrospect, enjoyed retail banking so much more because it was one on one. You really saw more of an effect that you had on people's lives. You built more of a relationship with them. I love that.
And you were in radio sales?
I was the sales manager at Clear Channel for Sunny 100, as a matter of fact. I sold air time. I sold the hardest thing in the world to sell, which is air with an expiration date. (laughs)
What's a typical day like for you now? Is counseling part of it?
I don't counsel myself because we're required to be certified by our national accrediting agency, Part of that certification is you have to do a certain amount of hours of counseling per year to be recertified. To do all of my other job responsibilities, I wouldn't be able to fulfill that requirement.
So you manage things?
I manage counselors here. We also have an office in LaGrange. I am responsible for all of our grant reporting, all of the requirements associated with the various grants we operate under. I'm responsible for maintaining communications and meeting the requirements of creditors who provide some funding. It's a neat thing. We get funding from various sources and they all have a certain set of requirements and documentation, and that's a large part of what I do.
The grants are from public and private sources?
Both. We get grants from (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) that allow us to provide certain types of counseling for free to the clients. We also get grants from private foundations. We get grants from creditors whose clients we serve. It's a real mix.
How many counselors do you have?
I have three here and one in LaGrange ... I could use more, but we're a nonprofit and we've got to live within our means. Every nonprofit will tell you the same thing, funding is your biggest challenge. But we're at a level that we're comfortable with now.
It's the holidays and shopping and spending. I take it your office will get pretty busy in the coming weeks?
We always have an uptick in January when the bills arrive. We call it the holiday blues, and it's really true. I've noticed it every year I've been here. Our appointments increase in January and February. When the bills come due, people realize they've possibly made some poor financial choices. That being said, they've also solved half the battle by realizing they've made some poor choices and coming in to seek help.
What's the first step you take with people?
The first step with any successful financial counseling is developing a budget. Our counselors will do an overall review -- here's what you make, here's what you owe. But it all comes back to a budget and living within their means.
A lot of people don't have a budget, or a lot of people just keep a budget in their head. But I've found, and our counselors find, I think, that when you put something in black and white and on something that folks can carry with them or pull up on their spread sheet on their computer, it makes a difference. So that's where we start with everybody is a budget.
What's the biggest reason folks get into financial trouble during the holidays?
It's letting emotions rule, rather than reality. People get excited about the holidays. And they should, it's a great time of the year. But then they tend to equate: So and so will know how much I think of them or love them if I spend X amount on a gift. But it should be just the fact that you give them a gift ... People get carried away.
With the people your counselors are seeing now, do they encourage them to look at their gift list and maybe pare it down a bit?
We're not going to break it down to: You need to think about what you bought Suzy or Joanie. But we're going to break it down to the numbers -- this is what you should spend on gifts, and break it down however you choose. This is what your budget allows you to spend. All year we encourage folks to save. So, hopefully, this is one of the events they've been saving for.
Are there any horror stories, such as someone who's $100,000 in debt? It probably depends on their overall earnings?
It does. You can't incur a lot of debt without making decent money and paying your bills on time for a while ... We also do a program where we actually negotiate with the client's creditors and get their interest rates lowered. In exchange, the client agrees to pay back the amount of principal plus a smaller interest rate for up to a five-year period.
For example, if you have two cards and your interest rates are 18 and 21 percent and you hit hard times, you can come see us and because of our national accreditation and nonprofit status, we can generally negotiate with a creditor. If we can show that you can pay it back, we can get the rates lowered and terms to pay it back over five years.
But we've had people come in with a total debt balance of $1,500, which was a lot for them to carry. And then we've had people come in with total debt of $150,000, and everything in between. Like I said, you can't build up $150,000 worth of debt without having a good income and paying your bills for awhile. It's always something unexpected.
Do consumers need to be careful with some organizations that say they can reduce your debt obligation for a fee?
I would say this: If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. It helps to deal with a local agency with people you can see face to face. A lot of those things you see on TV are a debt settlement where, for example, you owe the company $10,000. Well at some point if a company figures out you're not going to be able to pay them back, they'll say, OK, we'll take $5,000 and just call it even. But in reality it destroys your credit, and you're paying these people a pretty decent-sized fee to do that for you.
We do charge a fee, but our fee is just 6 percent of the payment that we send out, but a maximum of $35. We don't make any money on that. It doesn't really cover our software costs.
Your other services are free, right?
The only things we charge for are the monthly fees for the debt management plan, and we also provide bankruptcy counseling, which is required before you can file bankruptcy. And before you can get discharged from bankruptcy you have to take a course. The Department of Justice approved us to do that. We're the only people with an office in town that can do it. You can do it a lot on the Internet, and we do it on the Internet, too, and we do charge a small fee for that.
Do we still have a lot of folks going the bankruptcy route?
Bankruptcies really peaked in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Last year was slower. This year, 2013, has been slower. Now they're still above 2007 levels, but they're not as bad as they were. So that's a good sign.
Do you get a sense that the economy is improving?
That's a hard question. People ask me that all the time. I think from what we see and what we hear, yes, it is improving. But you have to remember, it's improving from a very bad situation ... We're certainly not back to anywhere near where we were before the financial crisis hit. But it is better.
Do you talk about jobs with those you counsel?
Absolutely. If somebody comes in and the budget just absolutely says you've got to have more income to make this work, then we do recommend seeking a part-time second job. That's a realistic expectation. That's one of the easiest ways to make more money, because there are a lot of people out there who are still underemployed from where they were five or six years ago.
Does it become emotional dealing with people in tough financial times?
Finances are one of the most stressful things that any individual or family can deal with. My counselors have heard everything you can hear. Nobody sets out to get into financial difficulty. It happens due to a series of circumstances. But, yeah, it is very emotional sometimes.
Everything is confidential, correct?
Absolutely, oh gosh, yeah. Confidentiality is the cornerstone of what we do.
What about the VITA program. It's a side project for you?
Right. CCCS is one of the original members of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) coalition that formed here in 2004. We've got four sites in Columbus and one in Buena Vista. So it's a side thing for us, but it melds very well with our mission. It helps our clients and other people's clients to not have any fees, to not have to pay to get their taxes done or be taken advantage of. The other side of that is we make certain they get every credit they're eligible for. And I don't think everybody else out there does that sometimes.
When does that program kick back up again?
We're going to start accepting returns on Jan. 28. (The IRS has set a Jan. 31 start date for filing returns with the government.)
We've talked about holiday financial stress, but through the year is it just expenses mounting up that get people in trouble?
Most of the time it is an unexpected occurrence that brings somebody in to see us -- loss of a job, underemployment, medical bills, a change in marital status. Those are the primary drivers of financial problems.
Is it common for people to not seek help right away as the money problems mount?
Yeah. It's like I mentioned earlier, those people coming to see us in January and February have already solved half the problem by admitting they probably need to talk about it with somebody and get some professional assistance ... Our clients will tell us that: I wish I had been here earlier. If you put something off and pretend it's not going to happen, that doesn't mean it's going to go away.
What's the toughest aspect of your job?
I think the toughest aspect of my job is hearing stories of bad things that happen to good people. It really is. I read the notes on almost all of our files which explain the situation, how this client came to see us, and what happened. It's sometimes just heartbreaking that people have done nothing wrong and done nothing to deserve anything bad happening financially to them or otherwise. And it just happens. That's the hard part.
What's the most rewarding feeling you get out of this?
The most rewarding aspect is giving people hope ... When you see folks come in and talk to one of my counselors for the first time, and then you happen to see them when they're walking out and they've gotten some hope, you can tell. And we get thank-you letters and notes all the time.
What one piece of financial advice do you have for everyone out there?
Use a budget and communicate about your budget with your partner. That's one thing. Just be open and honest with whoever you're responsible for that budget for ... We hear that: So and so hid debts, or one spouse hid debt from the other spouse.
The bottom line: You don't want to be the Scrooge of the Christmas season, but you do want people to remain aware of their spending?
I don't see myself as the Grinch, I see myself as good news. (laughs). Just be aware, because Christmas will be over and January's coming and the bills come due.