Celeste Collins: OnTrack with Financial Literacy


By Jonna Rae Bartges


Scenario #1: After years of waiting patiently, you’re thrilled when your Prince Charming finally appears.  With all the wiles his name implies, he convinces you to put the money you’ve carefully saved into his “can’t fail” business idea.  He assures you you’ll get a 200% return on your investment.  Alas, it fails.  As does the relationship.  As does your hope of ever retiring, since your retirement fund has vanished along with Prince Charming and his promises.


Scenario #2: For the past two decades, your husband has handled all the family’s financial responsibilities.  When you discover he’s also handled his much younger secretary, the marriage crashes and burns.  That’s when you also discover that since his name was on everything, you have no credit history.  You’re pretty much starting from square one, with little hope of getting a financial square deal.


Scenario #3: You’re a college freshman, and it’s awesome how easy it is to get credit cards!!  You’re preapproved!!  There’s 0% interest for the first six months!! And then you start getting awesomely huge credit card bills that you can’t cover.


If you’re one of the thousands of Western North Carolina women finding herself in an all-too-common financial bind, you’re not alone.  Lucky for you, the region has a secret weapon for helping you crawl out from under your debt, take charge of your finances, and learn the positive money management habits that will keep you financially healthy, happy and secure.


What’s the ‘secret weapon’?  It’s OnTrack WNC’s Women’s Financial Empowerment Center.  The Center is sponsoring the 2012 Women & Money Conference Saturday, October 6 from 9 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. at First Baptist Church of Asheville, 5 Oak St.  Using the theme “What’s in Your Financial Toolbox?” the conference will provide women with a selection of more than two dozen concurrent workshops on topics ranging from basic budgeting, debt relief, dealing with divorce, planning for homeownership, financing your own business, and investing for the future. The $15 registration fee includes the workshops, materials, lunch, and the featured keynote presentation.  For more information or to reserve your space online at www.OnTrackWNC.org/Woman, or call (828) 255-5166 x112.


In planning the conference, OnTrack realized that changing money behaviors is about tools plus motivation, so attendees will be inspired by conference keynote speaker, Jessica Chilton, President/Founder of Spark Creative Wellness Studio (www.SparkCreativeWellness.com). In the presentation “Three Inner Power Tools to Spark Your Financial Wellness,” Jessica will help women understand how their self-worth impacts their earning potential.  She’ll inspire them to release limiting old beliefs to improve their relationship with money.   


So who’s behind this powerhouse agency that’s making a difference in the lives of women (and men) in western North Carolina?  Meet Celeste Collins, human dynamo and director of OnTrack Financial Education & Counseling.  Celeste oversees a vibrant staff of 21 financial counselors and educators, and an interactive roster of free classes and services that just in the last 10 years has helped more than 85,000 area residents handle financial crises, attain financial stability, become financially self-sufficient, and invest in their future.


Charismatic, out-going and obviously passionate about her work, Celeste’s first career dream was to become a teacher when she headed to UNC-Chapel Hill. But the economy being what it was in the early 1980’s, she opted for a degree in Business Administration and concentration in Accounting.  After graduating, she worked her way up the financial food-chain to the post of Vice President, Regional Sales & Marketing Manager for First Union National bank’s 88 branches in WNC.


In 1986, Celeste became a member of the Board of Directors of OnTrack (then called Consumer Credit Counseling Service of WNC), and learned the impact financial stress had on families and our community.  Her desire to make a difference, longing for more time with her kids, and her inner teacher joined forces and in 1993 she jumped at the chance to join the OnTrack team as a part-time educator/counselor. And that’s where is all started!  In 2002 she became the agency’s Executive Director.


A History of Helping

Early in her time with the agency, its main focus was helping people deal with unsecured credit card debt.  “It was SO easy to get credit cards – many of them! – and people couldn’t understand they were digging themselves into debt,” said Celeste.  “I like to say we do plastic surgery without a medical license, by cutting up credit cards for people who have hit the crisis point.”


In addition to helping people manage their debt, the agency’s counselors helped them develop a budget.  Many were amazed to see how following a budget actually empowered them to make smarter money decisions.  They could afford that luxury item or dream vacation—if they planned and saved for it.
Although the Women’s Financial Empowerment Center is only two years old, OnTrack WNC has always paid attention to the unique needs of women.


 “After nearly 20 years on the job,” said Celeste, “I’ve seen that the three biggest money management challenges to women in western NC are a shortage of jobs, low wages, and high cost of living.”  
To add insult to injury for women facing divorce, Celeste cautioned, many feel they can’t afford to get professional financial advice.  Left to their own devices and limited understanding of options available to them, they frequently make uninformed money decisions which severely compromise their financial futures.


Healing Financial Fears

One of the biggest challenges to getting women “on track” with their finances is they feel too intimidated to even attempt budgeting.  “It’s so much easier to stick with the things you already know how to do,” Celeste said. “When you don’t know the first thing about money management, you don’t even know where to start.  But,  “Our counselors will sit with you, and help you review your situation.  We’ll take a holistic look at three key areas of your finances – your assets, money you owe, your cash flow.  Is there too much month left at the end of your money?  We’ll help you identify necessary changes to old spending habits and support your ongoing money journey.”


The Women’s Financial Empowerment Center recognizes the importance of peer support in sustaining life change. According to Celeste, “Like with losing weight, exercising, or stopping smoking, a friend’s encouragement and support can make all the difference.” For that reason the Center created the Money Buddies program, a series of six workshops in which women pair up as accountability partners.   
Celeste and OnTrack WNC not only help western NC women, but many of the children through two unique programs.  


Because one of Celeste’s many passions is teaching, she realizes the importance of introducing money management skills at an early age.  Thus was born the “Dime-a-saurus,” which originally was a rather intimidating scarlet leviathan intended to travel to schools and teach youngsters the benefits of saving money, even a dime at a time.  Asheville Savings Bank partnered with Celeste to bring the creature a new, more-approachable persona.


In a hilarious takeoff on the ubiquitous reality TV makeover shows, Celeste and her creative team produced an Extreme Makeover for Dime-a-saurus.  The video takes the creature from a scary red creature to an on-the-money friendly, green, and financially savvy buddy the elementary school set can understand and appreciate. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=OpC1ZN8vtVM)  


Another effective educational initiative is Mad City Money, a half-day exercise for Asheville High freshmen. The cafeteria is transformed into Mad City, with over 50 community volunteers, many of them local merchants, scattered around the space and pitching the students on all the essentials of life – from basics like food, shelter and clothing, to cars, furniture and “fun stuff.”  Students are given a certain amount of Mad Money, and instructed to “purchase” what they need to live their life while attempting to balance their budgets.


“I got to be the Mad City furniture salesperson,” Celeste smiled.  “I convinced teenaged boys to buy the most expensive couches and accessories to impress the ladies.  After they’d been through the entire cafeteria, though, and learned what they’d need to spend for the basics, they usually came back to ‘return’ the extravagant furnishings for more practical choices.  It’s a wonderful way to teach young people how to set realistic and practical priorities with their spending.”


Creating Healthy Work/Life Balance

While she’s been working with OnTrack WNC for nearly two decades, Celeste has carried, until recently, nagging guilt that her career meant she wasn’t more of a stay-at-home mom for her two children.
“My daughter is a senior at Chapel Hill, majoring in Women’s Studies and Social/Economic Justice,” Celeste said, beaming with pride.  “She wants to run a non-profit that empowers women and girls!
“I always worried that I wasn’t there enough for her or my son, who’s a senior at Asheville High.  But two years ago I was able to shed that guilt when out of the blue my daughter told me, ‘I’m so glad you’re a working mom.  You’re making such a difference with your life, and I love the example you set for me as a woman.’


“She reminded me that life is family, but what’s important is beyond family, too.”


For more information about OnTrack Financial Education & Counseling, or to schedule an appointment with a financial counselor, call them at (828) 255-5166 or visit them online at www.OnTrackWNC.org.


Author, Emmy-winner and consultant Jonna Rae Bartges is a frequent contributor to WNC Woman Magazine.  Her autobiography, Psychic or Psychotic? Memoirs of a Happy Medium, is available in the Asheville area at Malaprops and Crystal Visions, on amazon.com in softcover or kindle, and through her website, www.JonnaRae.com.  For information on upcoming workshops, or to schedule a private consultation, contact her at (828) 337-4017.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker