Sean Yaris (above), Kathryn Dunklee (bottom left) and Eric Melo have all benefited from services provided by More Than Wheels. (All photos courtesy of More Than Wheels)
by Jacquinn Williams – Dec. 21, 2011 – Published by The Bay State Banner
More Than Wheels — a nonprofit company that uses car buying as a catalyst for economic stability — is helping clients take control of their finances.
Founded in 2001 in New Hampshire, the successful organization now has offices a stone’s throw from South Station in Boston. Focused on helping people understand their credit and modify their attitudes toward money, More Than Wheels has helped more than 1,500 people purchase cars.
“Our program is unique,” said Susan Chadwick, marketing communications manager. “What we’ve done is put together the credit education and car-buying process. It’s the catalyst for change.”
Having a car, especially in an urban neighborhood, equals access.
“Naysayers have said: More Than Wheels is not necessary. There’s public transportation available for everyone. But what if you work an odd shift at work and the busses don’t run when you get off?” asked Chadwick. “What if your job is outside of the area where pubic transportation is accessible? I have a client who told me that after they got their car, they were able to get a much better job.”
Other than buying a house, getting a car is one of the largest purchases consumers make. But, if credit issues are a problem, buying an automobile can start a cycle of debt.
“A lot of people get frustrated and head to those “Buy Here, Pay Here” lots, Chadwick said. “They walk away with an interest rate between 19-30 percent. If it’s not a reliable car, then the buyer has to pay for repairs on top of car payments. It’s a very disempowering feeling.”
Once a client has registered for the program, they take financial fitness (FinFit) classes where they are presented with their credit reports. Each class is dedicated to a different skill including how to save money on your grocery bill and the financial benefits of car maintenance. Counselors on hand teach them how to budget and how they can save money.
“We had a client who didn’t realize that he was spending a $175 a week at Wendy’s eating value meals,” Chadwick said. “Another client spent $60-70 a week on cigarettes. She had always wanted to go to Europe. That was her ‘aha’ moment. She realized she could make some of her dreams come true if she changed her habits.”
Behavior change is what More Than Wheels is after. Clients stay in the program anywhere from three to 12 months, depending on their credit challenges.
“It took me about six months before I got a car,” says More Than Wheels client Eric Melo, 26. “I got into credit problems when I was 18. At the time, credit was like a faded image in the back of my head. I wanted to get a car, but couldn’t get financing without a co-signer and a high interest rate. Plus if I got an older car, I’m just inheriting someone else’s problems.”
In addition to the FinFit classes, More Than Wheels has a Bridge program for clients with immediate transportation needs. They have a fleet of mostly donated cars that can be used until clients finish the program.
“There is a fee for using a Bridge car,” Chadwick explained. “The payment serves as consistent payment history that we can present to lenders when clients buy a car.”
Clients who go through the program end up with a payment history that More Than Wheels presents to lenders as a loan story.
“We have created relationships with auto dealers to get the best rates for our clients,” Chadwick said. “The rates we’re getting are not presented to the average person with the same credit history as our clients. What helps them get approved is the loan story. We can show them payment history and growth.”
All the cars purchased by program participants come with a five-year warranty.
“We have a less than 5 percent default rate,” said Chadwick.
Through leveraging their relationships with lenders, More Than Wheels — which has a quarterly TV program “On the Road with More Than Wheels” on BNN — claims that they will save clients $15 million dollars collectively over the course of their loans.
After learning how to budget and save, the purchase of the car becomes a major achievement, especially for Melo, who has two kids and a job with a 20-minute commute.
“It feels tremendous,” he said. “Getting a new car is like getting new jewelry. You put it on and you feel different. I have a newfound confidence.”
For more information about More Than Wheels, call 866-455-2522.