Mary Riley helps those struggling with debt get a grip on finances

Mary Riley is the director of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service at The Family Center of Columbus.
Mary Riley is the director of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service at The Family Center of Columbus.

When it comes to taking care of your finances, Mary Riley preaches that there is no substitute whatsoever for planning and setting up a budget.

That goes for the upcoming holidays, which can be particularly troublesome for last-minute gift givers. And it’s certainly true when preparing to purchase a car or a home, or plan life events such as a graduation or wedding. And don’t forget to sock cash away well ahead of that much-needed vacation, she reminds.

The bottom time is that Riley, 56, knows her business, having worked within a jewelry company — including setting up accounts and collecting on debts and property — and with the debt management arm of TSYS, in which she helped that firm’s clients collect from customers.

The Columbus resident is approaching her 13th anniversary with the Consumer Credit Counseling Service, counseling those everyday working people from throughout the Chattahoochee Valley region. Part of The Family Center of Columbus, CCCS serves about 2,000 individuals a year, generally those living in a 100-mile radius of the city.

In February, the native of Sylvania, Ga., became director of the counseling service, which includes a satellite office in nearby LaGrange, Ga. Services offered include credit and debt counseling, foreclosure prevention, student loan and rental counseling, budgeting in general, and bankruptcy education. Most of the services are free, and clients are guaranteed their names and information will remain confidential.

The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Riley recently at her office at 1350 15th Ave. to discuss her job, the services she oversees and why she wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.

Q. You have a background in the jewelry world?

A. When I started out I was selling, and then I became the credit manager after a little less than a year. Then I became the assistant store manager. That was for the A.A. Friedman Co. out of Augusta.

Q. How did you come to Consumer Credit Counseling Service?

A. November will be 13 years. I was doing collections there (at the jewelry store) and I have an accounting background. I majored in accounting when I was in college. When I left the jewelry store I did collections in Hawaii. Then I came to TSYS and started in collections. But then I thought, you know what, I want a job where I can sit down with a person one on one and discuss their financial situation, work out a budget with them, and help them pay off all of their bills. When I saw the ad in the paper for counselor with Consumer Credit Counseling, I said that’s what I want to do. So I prayed about it and about two weeks later I got an offer for the job.

Q. You work with people during tough times?

A. Some of them may already have accounts in collections, and some of them may be at the point where they’re about to default on their accounts. So with the debt management plan that we offer, they come in and we review their options. If they are in a situation where we can put them on a program that’s going to help them, we recommend a debt management plan.

Sometimes it can be just a matter of budgeting. It’s a matter of, OK, you have this account. Let’s see what we can do to resolve your excessive use of this account. Let’s see what we can do to set up a budget for you so that you can establish some savings. That way you can pay off this account quicker.

Some of them can be defaulting on their mortgage. Some of them could be in need of foreclosure intervention assistance. Some of them could be defaulting on their credit cards. Usually with the foreclosure, it’s because they’ve lost their job, or there could be a death of a family member or spouse, or any medical hardship. They might not be able to afford their mortgage because of some hardship.

Q. I take it you’ve always paid your bills on time?

A. I always paid my bills on time. I always have. No problem. The only thing that happened to me was when I was in college I was given a credit card by a major credit card company. I was like, I didn’t apply for this. They were just giving them out to students. I was scared. Thank God my brother stepped in and made that first payment until I got to the point of, OK, now I can pay. It was a small balance.

I’ve always had the desire to pay my bills on time, because in my household my mom never carried a credit card. She paid everything with cash, or put it on an installment plan and that was it. She will be 85 this month, well tomorrow in fact, and she has one credit card, and it probably has a zero balance.

Q. Her message to you was live within your means?

A. That’s right. But sometimes there isn’t somebody in your household or in your life who can guide you. That’s why we have agencies like ours that step in.

Q. Helping folks set up a budget is one of your basic free services?

A. Sometimes people come in here just because they want to know how to set up a budget. They’re making money, but they don’t know where the money’s going. If they’re looking to establish credit to get a car or purchase a home, we tell them how to establish credit and what type of credit to avoid, how to pay their bills once they establish credit, and how to improve their credit score.

Q. How is it different to be the director rather than the financial counselor?

A. The big difference is now I know more of why we do all that we do. You can have the background of knowing how to counsel someone. But when you are working for a non-profit and you’re seeking funding to keep the agency going so that you can help the people in the community, there are certain things that come into play. Those include the number of people that you see, how many people you are able to reach, what are you able to offer them that other agencies may not be able to offer them. So now I can see what we do and how it all falls into place.

Q. What is your primary duty as director?

A. I am supervising the counselors that are here to make sure that we are up on all of the things that we need to be up on, as far as guidelines for creditors, industry guidelines, HUD guidelines — because we do offer housing counseling — foreclosure prevention, pre-purchase and rental counseling. With the constant changes with the creditors, I have to be up on what’s going on, and the counselors have to be aware of what’s going on, too.

Q. But you as director still counsel clients?

A. In some organizations, the directors are just that. They don’t counsel. But I chose to continue to counsel for awhile anyway. I enjoy it. I think that’s what I was supposed to do. There have been times when I’ve had job offers to go somewhere else, but I felt that was not what I was supposed to be doing.

Q. What’s the most difficult part of your job?

A. Paperwork, paperwork. (laughs) Reporting on things constantly. That’s the toughest part. But there are always going to be challenges. A client might come in and I have to consult on a case with a counselor, and sometimes there are people who come in and you wish that you can help them. But you can’t help with their situation, other than perhaps referring them for legal assistance or advice. But if we can help them within our debt management program, or just budgeting, so that things get worked out, we will do so.

Q. Planning for the holidays and other life events isn’t always easy for everyone, I take it?

A. The biggest thing is if you know you want to buy Christmas gifts for your kids or family, or if you want to go on a vacation, let’s start preparing a budget so that you can see what your needs are throughout the year. Let’s set up a budget so you can set aside money for that payment or money for those gifts ... in a special savings account, however you want to establish it. When it’s time to go into that account at the end of the year for Christmas, you’ll know that you already have the money set aside.

If you have a child that’s getting ready to graduate next year, let’s incorporate that into your budget, because when it’s time to buy the cap and gown and the invitations, the senior activities, the money will be there.

Q. The holidays can be tricky because of the rush and the pressure to give gifts?

A. Sometimes people rush out at the last minute during the Christmas holidays and they actually spend more than they normally would … Then they think, I’ll just pay the utility bill late. They might know much time it takes before the power company cuts it off. You don’t want to do that. And you don’t want to go to local loan companies and get a loan just for the Christmas holidays, because after the holidays are over you’ve got to pay that loan back. And the interest (charge) is pretty high. So you want to plan things out.

Q. You can also work with clients’ creditors?

A. We do set up a debt management plan. We work with the creditors to establish that payment plan so (our clients) can reduce the interest rates and the payment and they can pay it back. Our clients have to sign a contract and it’s a voluntary contract, so that if you decide you don’t want to be in the plan anymore, you put it in writing and that’s it. What we do is charge a minimum fee, which is 6 percent of your total estimated payment. But the maximum cap to us is $35 a month.

Q. Finally, what do you enjoy most about your job?

A. I think it’s having somebody call or send an email or just come by and say, “Thank you. You helped me.” And we issue surveys to our clients. We have clients who write down that this is the best thing to ever happen to me. Or you might have someone else come to you for assistance and they say, “My friend referred you to me, and they said that you helped them and for me not to go anywhere else but CCCS.”

Q. So other than your paycheck, the appreciation you see on people’s faces is a major reward for you?

A. That’s right. That’s what has kept me here.

Q. It sounds like you’re going to stick with this for awhile?

A. I’m going to be here ... as long as they’ll have me. I really like it.

Mary L. Riley

Age: 56

Hometown: Sylvania, Ga.

Current residence: Has lived in Columbus for 25 years

Education: 1978 graduate of Screven County High School, and 1984 graduate Fort Valley State College (now Fort Valley State University)

Previous jobs: Credit manager and assistant manager (A.A. Friedman Co. ) Friedman’s Jewelers, aka Marks & Morgan Jewelers in Columbus; worked with TSYS Debt Management; credit manager with Schofield Inn, Wahiawa in Hawaii

Family: Married mother of two adult children, with one granddaughter

Leisure time: Enjoys gardening and spending time with her family; also loves to sing; and volunteers with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program