Maria's Success Story and Imagine LA's Financial Wellness Program

In early May, Maria turned the key and walked right through the front door of her own home. Twelve years ago, if someone had told her she’d be living the American Dream today, she would have been skeptical. She had just endured a three-year nightmare. She and her young son, Danny, fled a harmful relationship into homelessness. Eventually, with great courage, she committed to sober living in a transitional housing facility. When she and Danny were ready to move out and move on, she was understandably scared as a single mom in recovery. 

Years of dogged determination and a commitment to savings helped Maria cross the threshold of her new home in Paramount. She credits her Imagine LA mentor team with not only teaching her the importance of budgeting and developing a smart savings plan, but instilling in her the confidence to know she could reach this milestone one day.

Maria signed on as a mentee with Imagine LA in 2008. With her mentors’ help, Maria set up her first apartment, got Danny enrolled in kindergarten, learned computer skills, developed a household budget, developed strong saving habits, learned to drive, bought her first car, and raised her credit score. After graduating from the program in 2011, she retained excellent financial wellness habits. Ultimately, when that apartment building was redeveloped and Maria had to move out, she looked at her savings, started exploring the idea of buying her own place, and the rest is history.

Taking the Steps: Learning Financial Wellness with Imagine LA

Financial wellness is a critical component of Imagine LA’s successful and highly lauded Family Empowerment and Mentorship Model. On top of a one-on-one mentor, each family’s head of household is matched with an additional mentor who specifically focuses on financial wellness. At the onset of the program, guided by Imagine LA’s professional staff, using proprietary program workbooks, financial wellness mentors walk their mentees through various exercises that explore the psychology of money. The mentee makes important discoveries about his/her own relationship to all aspects of money before launching into the work of building a spending and savings plan.

The spending and savings plan-building process occurs in varied timelines throughout Phase 1 of Imagine LA’s program. Some families enter the program with experience building a household budget and using the banking system; some do not.  The mentor and mentee work together to build a foundation of healthy financial habits. The program teaches budgeting, saving skills and habits, and provides guidance to navigate the banking system, repair credit scores and complete tax returns. Each family’s journey is different, but all Imagine LA families graduate from the program with significantly greater financial literacy and skills.  

Saving for the Unexpected and Imagine LA’s Match

Two elements are critical in an Imagine LA family’s path to achieving financial empowerment and stability – the Family Emergency and Investment Fund and Savings Match Program – and each is part of the financial wellness curriculum.

The Family Emergency and Investment Fund is a cornerstone of the Family Empowerment & Mentorship model. Unexpected car repairs, medical expenses, and school needs can put already vulnerable families at heightened risk for repeat homelessness. On the flip side, many promising opportunities are beyond their reach financially. This staff-administered fund makes small investments (up to $1,000 per family) to prevent a family’s return to homelessness or to invest in a family’s future (e.g. rent, car repairs, tires, school books and fee, graduation packages). Family members never receive the cash; instead, Imagine LA pays the vendor directly. 

The Saving Match Program both encourages savings habits and helps the family start building its own Emergency and Investment Fund. As part of the program, Imagine LA provides families with access to a savings account (which Imagine LA manages). Imagine LA matches the savings 100% if the family has saved $500 upon graduation. So in addition to developing keen savings habits, the majority of families graduate from the Imagine LA program with $1,000 or more in savings.  

The investment fund and match program are made possible thanks to generous grants from Beverly Hills Rotary Community Foundation, The Hoag Foundation, The Wells Fargo Foundation and Northrup Grumman Foundation.

Maria Reaps the Reward

When families understand the importance of setting financial goals and developing healthy monetary habits alongside developing the critical practical and emotional skills they need to get back on their feet, the sky’s the limit. As Maria unpacks boxes and settles into her new home, she’s saying “Amen” to that: “I’m all moved in, I love it, I’m so happy I could do whatever I want to it, you know paint it any color I want… wow, this is my home.”