Cruising the tree-lined streets of Charlotte, N.C., in a refurbished, mint-green school bus, roving financial planner Marsha Barnes, 40, spends her days listening to the heart-wrenching disasters that have put local residents in financial jeopardy. Whether it's a failed business, a layoff, or a child's illness, she says, "when something happens that takes away from your monthly income, it absolutely is emotional."
Barnes helps them get back on track with tough-love advice—and a clear plan to follow. "Most people don't want to talk about finance," says Barnes. "It's quite a taboo topic."
Barnes launched the mobile aspect of her practice in November 2014 to help a broader pool of people than she could assist in a traditional office. Purchasing a small bus she calls The Finance Bar, she enlisted a sorority sister to design the sleek, pared down interior in soothing tones.
Then she had to tackle a big challenge: "I had no idea how to drive it," she says. After doing a few practice runs, she began alerting social media followers about where she'd be showing up.
Most of the advice-seekers are women, says Barnes. They have three main questions: Why does it seem there's more month than money? How do I boost my credit score? And, for those in midlife: How do I save money so I can walk away from a job I'm not enjoying anymore?
Usually, says Barnes, the answers start with looking at two "magic numbers:" how much they earn and how much they really spend. Then she'll review their bank statements and other financial records to come up with recommendations for them to follow.
One key challenge for many is keeping track of non-essential purchases, she says. "Everyone is not living on bare, basic needs," she says. "You're going to go out to eat or stop at the convenience store." If you want to spend $300 on those purchases every month, there should be a line item in your budget for it, she advises her clients.
Those who are self-employed often have difficulty estimating their monthly income, too. She recommends that free agents average their past three months' income to come up with a realistic number to use in a budget. Without a projection like this, she says, "you'll never know what you can afford."
So far, the solo planner has advised about 4,400 visitors to the bus. And as word about her has spread, she has gotten invitations to share her message on college campuses, where she can start working with students early in their financial lives.
Barnes takes pride in victories like helping one woman entrepreneur start chipping away at $13,000 in credit card debt and to start saving so she doesn't have to worry about what happens if she can't work. "She makes enough money to pay her bills, save money and enjoy life—but her habit was not in saving a lot of money," says Barnes.
Given the constant lure of the latest gadgets, restaurant brunches with friends, and new cars, most of those she advises admit to having a hard time making changes. "It's fear of not being able to keep up with everyone else," says Barnes.
Then again, none have refused to try her plans. As she reminds them, "The great thing about this is it doesn't have to be forever. It's getting yourself financially to where you want to be." Of course, once they get there, they may not want to give up on the financial habits that have helped them hit their goals.