Guidewell Financial Solutions marks half-century of helping

After 50 years of service, Guidewell Financial continues to adapt to market demands

Catonsville resident Gene Noble, 79, had a spending problem.

"I was kind of an impulse buyer," he said.

After a lifelong career in the federal government, Noble retired, got a pension and started a second job with the state. Great. More money, more spending.

"My impulse buying went up a few notches," he said. "Instead of going to Burlington [Coat Factory], I was going to Neiman Marcus. I always had a penchant for nice shoes, and watches were a weakness. I was sort of in denial about how soon I'd be retiring."

But then when he retired for good about four years ago, the spending didn't stop. He rationalized his purchases by seeking sales, but was still buying things he didn't really need. He was also traveling a lot to see his children in Arizona and his grandchildren.

About a year ago, he got to a point where he felt his financial world closing in on him. He hadn't gone into delinquency and he never missed payments, but things weren't going in the right direction.

"I was using credit cards more and more," he said. "I started to panic a little bit."

At the end of last year, U.S. households had a combined $12.12 trillion in debt, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. About 5.4 percent of those loans were in some stage of delinquency, according to the bank, which is the lowest rate since early 2007, before the recession.

Noble had trouble sleeping when he was thinking about his bills. Lenders started sending him letters in the mail, offering help, but he said the kinds that sought him out were predatory.

He had heard about Guidewell Financial Solutions, a national nonprofit credit consulting agency based in Catonsville.

Noble said there can be a stigma that comes with getting financial counseling, but he went anyway, and said when he contacted Guidewell he didn't feel judged. He got into a debt management program, through which he learned to control his impulse purchases.

"I can still go see my kids if I get a cheap flight, but I'm much more conscious of a budget," he said.

Noble said his financial problem was small — many people find themselves in financial trouble after emergencies or medical problems. That's the situation with one Catonsville woman who wanted to stay anonymous because of her situation.

She sought the help of Guidewell about a month ago after her husband began kidney dialysis. The treatments were expensive, she said, and caused money problems.

Her debt has been consolidated through Guidewell, she said.

"I'm not stressed like I was before," she said.

Half-century of service

Fifty years ago, Guidewell Financial was founded in the Patterson Park neighborhood of Baltimore. It now is licensed to serve customers in every state over the phone. The company changed its name from Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Maryland and Delaware Inc. in April 2015.

It employs 60 people and served 10,000 clients around the country last year.

The company came to Catonsville in the early 1990s. Nina Heck, director of counseling and client services, was hired 29 years ago. Back then, the company had 12 satellite offices, and much of its work focused on credit card debt. As access to cellphones and Internet grew, the satellite offices were consolidated into two main branches: one in Catonsville and another in Wilmington, Delaware.

"When I started, it was truly just Maryland and Delaware," Heck said. "Now everything is done by the phone, almost."

The focus of the company has always been on helping people in need of financial guidance, but specific areas have changed.

When Heck started, the main problem was credit cards — the office still has 20-gallon jugs filled with shredded plastic.

When the federal government began requiring a certification to file bankruptcy, the company added that service, Heck said.

In 2008, with the country facing a recession and housing crisis, Guidewell began offering housing counseling to deal with an increase in foreclosures. Two years ago, it added financial coaching.

This January, Guidewell started offering student loan counseling. The total student loan debt in the United States is about $1.2 trillion, and the average debt for a 2014 graduate is $33,000, according to financial organization Debt.org.

Another addition for Guidewell in January was Helene Raynaud, who started as CEO after longtime leader Jim Godfrey retired. Raynaud came to the company after 10 years with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Raynaud said a hallmark of the company is its comprehensive approach, whether a client needs student loan counseling or mortgage counseling.

"We will sit down and do a holistic, comprehensive review of their entire financial picture, have conversations about their goals, their spending happens," she said. "We force them to show us what their budget really looks like."

Some services, such as credit counseling are free. Debt management counseling has a maximum fee of $40 a month. Other services have flat fees, like $99 for student loan counseling or $125 per individual/$150 per couple for reverse mortgage counseling.

Changing spending habits can be difficult for people, because in some ways those habits are a part of the person's identity.

"I don't think we necessarily think about what we should be doing. A lot of times it's based on behaviors we may have learned long ago," said Nancy Stark, Guidewell's director of public affairs.

It affects a person's self-esteem and can be a major source of stress.

"Financial distress, it really has a crippling impact on someone's life," Raynaud said.

In addition to a push for student loan services, Raynaud would like to see the company get back into communities. Guidewell will have a two-pronged presence at the University of Maryland Baltimore. Each Wednesday the group will have a housing counselor available at the school's Community Engagement Center on Poppleton Street in West Baltimore, as part of the school's Workforce and Wealth Building Wednesdays. The center held its grand opening April 16.

Twice a month, a credit counselor will be available on campus to help students. Raynaud said she would like to forge partnerships with other area schools, such as Towson University or Johns Hopkins University, in the future.

Another way the group helps students is by funding financial education on the high school level. Each year, Guidewell helps fund the Maryland Council on Economic Education's Personal Finance Challenge, according to Mike Martin, Lansdowne High School's Academy of Finance coordinator.

The challenge pushes kids to learn throughout the year to prepare for the competition, which pits teams from schools around the state against each other in tests on topics such as credit, investment and money management. Lansdowne placed third this year after taking first place in 2010 and 2011.

Martin said he hopes his students have learned enough about finance to never need Guidewell's services.

"This is a tough area, economically," Martin said. "It's important for these kids to know how to handle themselves."

The prizes, $500 for first place and $250 for second for 2016, were also a big draw.

"I just applaud them so much," Martin said. "It's that real-world connection to our classroom."

Open house

Guidewell Financial Solutions is holding an open house at 757 Frederick Road in Catonsville on April 29 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. to celebrate its 50th anniversary. The event will include finance workshops, food, entertainment and free shredding service, according to Nancy Stark, director of public affairs.

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