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Monica Hines became a Prudential Advisor to make a difference. Now she’s leading people out of debt.

By Theresa Miller

June 04, 2019

When Donna Torres meets summer employees at the Cleveland Municipal Court, she often asks during training whether they have savings accounts. Most don’t.

While working at the court, the temporary staff has a chance to invest in a dedicated account. And they’re encouraged to leave that money alone, especially if they plan to return the next summer, because it “will build up and build up,” Torres says. Unfortunately, most cash out.

The court has 156 full-time employees. Torres, the court’s training coordinator, says it’s important to understand that most are African American, “because I believe we have a greater challenge with debt management.” 

While Prudential’s Financial Wellness Census found black Americans are as likely as the general population to carry credit card debt, the data is much different among higher-income households. Half of higher-income black households surveyed carry credit card debt, versus only 38% of the general population. Student debt also tends to be more of a factor for black Americans. So, in a nation where nearly 23% of all Americans say their debt exceeds their retirement savings, black households at all income levels are especially focused on paying down debt.

In Cleveland, the court offers wellness programs on topics like emotional stress, caregiving and nutrition. Few draw as much interest as sessions on finance.

The team is about to see an entirely new kind of training from Monica Hines, a Prudential advisor invited to teach a debt management course called dfree. They’ll learn budgeting, create debt repayment plans and start saving money. They’ll even have homework.

Hines joined Prudential in 2014 after a career that included working as a public affairs director at a local Cleveland television station.

Not long afterward, Hines was in Washington, D.C., where she learned about dfree at the annual Conference of African American Financial Professionals from its founder, DeForest Soaries Jr., senior pastor at a Somerset, New Jersey, Baptist church. Through dfree, a wealth-building system designed to meet the unique financial challenges of black Americans, Soaries has also recently issued a Billion Dollar Challenge, urging black Americans to form groups working together to reduce debt through a national initiative for all to achieve financial wellness. So far, more than 260 groups have paid down about $19 million in debt.

Soaries’ parents taught him that if you couldn’t pay cash, you couldn’t afford something, he said at a recent Black Leadership Forum town hall. But when he got his first apartment, he bought $3,000 worth of furniture—on credit. He fell so deep in debt he couldn’t contribute to the church he pastored, so dfree was born—first for himself, then his congregation, and eventually nationwide through a partnership with Prudential.

After meeting Soaries, Hines wanted to become a certified dfree trainer and partner. Prudential didn’t offer a class at the time, but that didn’t stop her, and she worked with dfree’s training and engagement team. Hines began teaching the free courses a year ago when a local Catholic diocese signed up and she recently scheduled her ninth session.

The class is making a difference in Cleveland. This year, a federal employee began paying down debt and building an emergency fund. As a result, when she was furloughed during the partial government shutdown, she weathered it without missing a bill payment or borrowing money. “She told me she would have been in a world of trouble had she not prepared,” Hines says.

In all, Hines’ students have paid down more than $80,000 in debt and saved $30,000. Many have improved credit scores, and all have reported substantial progress toward their financial goals. Though some students are in dire straits, most aren’t, and some have even been millionaires, with all looking to change how they think about money. Hines says many want to eliminate debt payments and apply the money saved toward a family legacy, to increase charitable giving, have cash on hand to help a family member or neighbor in need, or have enough saved for retirement.

Hines’ purpose in helping people to live financially secure lives supports her long-term business strategy to build client relationships. She hopes that as people learn to save money, they may need her financial advice. Some students have sought her advice or purchased financial products and invested through her.

Torres says she looks forward to taking the course with her colleagues and developing a relationship with money beyond spending it. “My philosophy has always been that as long as the bills are paid, it’s OK,” she says. “We need to know how to manage money, and teach our children, and our children’s children.”

dfree® is a trademark of the Corporate Community Connections, Inc., which is not affiliated with The Prudential Insurance company of America or its affiliates, Newark, New Jersey. Each company is solely responsible for its own financial condition, content, liabilities and contractual obligations.


Media Contact(s)

Alicia Rodgers Alston