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‘People are concerned and have a lot of fears. And as financial planners and financial advisors, there’s an expertise and a skill set we can bring to the table,’ says David O’Leary, who introduced an initiative to offer free personal finance consultations to anyone struggling with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Glenn Lowson photo/The Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail

David O’Leary, founder and principal at Toronto-based fee-for-service financial planning firm Kind Wealth, wanted to do something constructive as the COVID-19 pandemic began to disrupt people’s lives. So, as businesses closed their doors and layoffs spread across the country, he launched the Coronavirus Relief Effort to offer free personal finance consultations for anyone struggling with the economic impact of the pandemic.

“Obviously, people are concerned and have a lot of fears. And as financial planners and financial advisors, there’s an expertise and a skill set we can bring to the table,” Mr. O’Leary says. “I don’t expect we’ll be able to solve a cash-flow shortage, but we [can offer] words of advice, a non-judgmental ear to listen and a framework to help [people] think about how to make decisions.”

Mr. O’Leary put out the word on Twitter and LinkedIn and soon thereafter, about 20 advisors had stepped forward, able and willing to dedicate at least half a day a week to this initiative. One of them is Jason Pereira, partner and senior financial consultant at Woodgate Financial Inc., a financial planning firm under the IPC Securities Corp. umbrella in Toronto.

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“I have an ability to help, so why wouldn’t I?” Mr. Pereira says. “I’m not a medical practitioner who can help in that regard, but I’m someone who can help in a different way [by providing people] the solutions, answers or results they need or pointing them in the direction of the resources they’re going to need to take advantage of.”

Rona Birenbaum, founder and certified financial planner at Caring for Clients, a fee-for-service financial-planning firm in Toronto, also saw Mr. O’Leary’s call for volunteers and got in touch.

“I’m essentially a listening ear, an experienced ear, and what I’m hoping people do is bring their concerns and their immediate dilemmas to our conversation so that I can provide them with calm, objective, practical advice that they can take to help them get through this,” she says.

Natasha Knox, founder and financial planner at Pax Financial Planning and Education Inc. in New Westminster, B.C., is bringing more than her skills as a financial planner to the initiative. She has a graduate certificate in financial therapy and felt uniquely qualified to help, but wasn’t sure how to go about it until she heard about Mr. O’Leary’s initiative.

“This is not about scolding or [saying to people,] ‘How did you get in this position?’ There’s none of that. This is not the time for that,” Ms. Knox says. “This is the time to listen and help people get some perspective, make sure they’re aware of the support available currently through the government and help them think through some of their options … to de-escalate the fear.”

Staying on the right side of social distancing, they’re holding consultations over telephone or videoconferencing. That’s the model Mr. O’Leary uses at Kind Wealth, which has no physical offices and does all its business virtually. Advisors can choose to give a half-hour or one-hour consultations on whichever days work for them. Mr. O’Leary has booked off his Fridays and is offering one-hour sessions.

He plans to encourage those seeking guidance to either create or recreate their household budgets to reflect their new realities. Needs and wants may be significantly different now – and certain payments may have to be prioritized while others may have to be deferred. He’s also going to recommend that people list their top fears and then score them based on how probable, immediate and controllable they are. It can reduce stress to put the less probable, immediate and controllable fears on the back burner, he suggests.

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But with every Canadian affected in some way by COVID-19, what if there’s a surge in demand for the Coronavirus Relief Effort?

“I do want more and more financial planners and advisors who are interested to come forward,” Mr. O’Leary says. “If we can get more [financial professionals], we can help more Canadians. [In addition,] the other thing we’re already planning is to put together webinars, information sessions and group video chats.”

For advisors who are part of this initiative, one of the payoffs is providing people with actionable advice at the time they need it most.

“I hope I leave them with a sense of empowerment and optimism, but also a reality check,” Ms. Birenbaum says. “I hope I leave them with an understanding that they will likely need to be a little bit more creative than they have been in the past and approach their financial decision-making differently because this situation is not normal.”

Mr. O’Leary says that because anxiety can significantly impair people’s decision-making abilities, he thinks this initiative will have ripple effects that go well beyond making people feel a little better in the short term. That’s because the right financial decisions in a time of crisis may help people stay in their homes or keep their businesses afloat.

“It can be pretty powerful, at best. At worst, people get an empathetic ear,” he says. “We’re not going to solve all of their problems. But can we be of value? I think so.”

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