Financial Poise

A Few Minutes With … Michelle Gershfeld

Michelle Gershfeld has spent nearly 30 years as a lawyer, specializing in bankruptcy law.  She began her career in 1989 at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy, LLP, and later joined David Kittay’s law firm, first in Manhattan and then in Westchester County, and found her niche specializing in bankruptcy law.

Gershfeld has been the firm’s managing partner since 2000.  She has represented bankruptcy trustees and clients in more than 20,000 cases.  As an Accredited Financial Counselor and Financial Fitness Coach, she is an active member of the Association for Financial Counseling and Planning Education (AFCPE), the nationally recognized leader in financial counseling and education.

Bridging the two fields of law and financial counseling, Gershfeld uses her skills as a speaker and published writer to help clients on the road toward financial security.  Soon, she will regularly share her strategies with Financial Poise readers in a new column called  “Get Financially Fit,” dedicated to the idea that your financial success starts with managing your money.

In this interview, Gershfeld discusses her background and why she gets such a thrill out of helping others navigate the world of money.

How did you develop your interest in financial fitness?

I spent nearly three decades as a bankruptcy attorney and litigator.  In that time I have seen it all:  unexpected and devastating medical expenses, business collapses, divorces and myriad other tales of unexpected financial ruin.  I understand the struggle Americans are facing and how money has become a fear, sometimes crippling and unexpectedly so.

I have such compassion for my clients who have diligently worked so hard for so many years and yet are drowning in debt or barely making it week to week and feel that they will never be able to retire.

It is my love and passion for these people that caused a shift in my own personal life’s goal and has driven me to change my path from being a litigator to being a money mentor who can alleviate the pain and foster change.   I am dedicated to helping people find the right solutions and enjoy a better quality of life.

I provide a high-level, tailored approach based on the needs of each client to effectively analyze and create lasting financial behavior change.

Imagine how much better life could be if you weren’t always worried about money.

How do you think your experience as a bankruptcy lawyer helps you in your role as financial counselor?

My training in the bankruptcy field provides my Get Financially Fit clients with the capacity to gain an accurate and deep understanding of their personal money situation.  When tough decisions need to be made, I advise clients regarding the types of debt that are negotiable and those that are dischargeable in bankruptcy.  In my years of practice, I have seen too many instances of people unknowingly and unintentionally wasting their assets.  For example, you would not want to use your home equity or retirement savings to pay for unsecured credit card debt.  That is often a very difficult concept for people to understand.  My experience allows me the ability to share with my clients the legal implications of the decisions they make and allows them to understand that business decisions are separate from moral decisions.

The ultimate decision always rests with the client, but wouldn’t you want to know the consequences of your financial decisions before you made them?

As you know, our audience is a fairly affluent one.  Is what you do really relevant to it?

What I do is relevant to everyone who deals in the currency of money.   That means everyone.  Unfortunately, despite the fact that we all need to understand and manipulate the world of money, the education system in the United States has not designated financial literacy as a priority.  I have heard from Wharton Business School graduates, who made tons of money in hedge fund trading, that they had no idea how to manage their own spending and although they were making quite a bit, they were spending at a rate well beyond their means.  The temptation for “immediate gratification” and the need to “keep up with the Joneses” are things that Americans across the board struggle with.

Statistics show that 75 percent of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck.  That means many of our readers, who have significant income, still spend beyond their means and are often unsure how they got where they are financially and are embarrassed, ashamed or distraught.  The toll this pain can take is immeasurable and can be rectified once acknowledged.  People get caught up in the stories they tell themselves about their money and then they often make bad decisions.

Even the 25 percent who are doing great may have room to improve.  While it seems that you are managing your money well and have savings and emergency funds, are you sure that you are not leaking money unknowingly?  I want to make sure my clients and readers don’t lose money, have cash flow so they are able to put their hands on cash and take advantage of situations, position their money in such a way that it is continually growing, and manage tax risk as effectively as possible.

Everyone can benefit from a little financial advice, tips to make sure they are on track and the ability to see and seek new opportunities.   I hope my column will resonate with readers and have them thinking about the financial decisions they make on a daily basis.  Who can’t benefit from that?

I know that you are an Accredited Financial Counselor.  What does that mean?

I am accredited through the Association for Financial Counseling and Planning Education (AFCPE), a non-profit, international, professional membership organization dedicated to improving personal financial management education, training, and certification of financial counselors, educators, and other related practitioners.

AFC® certification marks the highest standards of excellence in the field of financial counseling and education. The AFCPE trains professionals to guide clients through a holistic counseling framework of life cycle financial education.  To become accredited, I sat for and passed a rigorous 3-hour exam and completed the requisite 1,000 hours of experience in financial counseling.

As an Accredited Financial Counselor, I have certified skills to assist individuals and families in the complex process of financial decision making, including the abilities to:  (1) educate clients in sound financial principles; (2) assist clients in the process of overcoming their financial indebtedness; (3) help clients identify and modify ineffective money management behaviors; (4) guide clients in developing successful strategies for achieving their financial goals; (5) support clients as they work through their financial challenges and opportunities; and (6) help clients develop new perspective on the dynamics of money in relation to family, friends and individual self-esteem.

How do you work with your clients?

Each client comes to me with his or her own money story.  I provide financial coaching services to clients where the objective is to assist them in setting goals and developing steps to achieve those financial goals.   I ask powerful questions and get to the crux of the matter.

As a financial counselor, I provide a “numbers specific” program licensed through AFCPE Achieve, through which I provide personalized 1-to-1 guidance along with online financial wellness, budgeting and tracking tools, in an individualized program consisting of 12 45-minute sessions.  I am the accountability partner, the educator, the voice of reason and a calming source of clarity.  I also cheer my clients in their accomplishments and acknowledge their efforts to understand and appreciate their money, their money story and their money habits.

My goal is to help clients gain focus on their goals and achieve them through education, awareness and practical solutions.  My mission is to empower clients to let go of any blame or shame they may feel as a result of their current financial situation and make any necessary changes to maximize and grow their net worth and live healthy and empowered lives.

Working directly with me, in person or online (via webinar), to learn and implement the strategies I provide changes lives … forever.   I love my work and my clients.  This is the life I was meant to live!

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About Michelle Gershfeld

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