From military intelligence officer to financial planner

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As 2015 drew to a close, DéShaun Monique Stafford and her husband, now both 30, found they didn’t have enough cash to pay their rent, a mystifying development since they both brought in steady incomes.

“Usually, if we were short, we could get help from our family, but it was the holiday season and funds were really scarce,” Stafford recalls. “We had no idea where our money was going.”

At a financial counseling clinic run by Britepaths, a nonprofit in Fairfax, Virginia, which helps low-income people near the nation’s capital, Stafford learned she could get free help from a member of the FPA of the National Capital Area.

That’s how she met Dolores “Didi” Dorsett, a newly minted CFP and a former intelligence officer with the United States Navy.

With the support of Dorsett and other Britepaths services, Stafford developed a passion for budgeting, paid down debt and built up an emergency reserve that survived the couple’s 20% to 30% loss in income after her husband took a different job.

Along the way, she and her husband discovered that as a household, including their two young sons — now 5 and 7 — they were spending $500 a month on fast food. “That was an eye-opener,” she says. By cooking at home, they brought that down to $120 right away and, over time, to $50.

“Now eating out is a treat,” Stafford says. “I’m so grateful for Didi. I never want to get back to that point where I don’t have enough.”

For her devotion to serving as many as 75 people, largely through tightly focused one-on-one pro bono planning sessions over three years, Dorsett is the runner-up for the 2018 Pro Bono Award. The award, jointly sponsored by Financial Planning and the Foundation for Financial Planning, recognizes planners who have provided exceptional service, advising people who otherwise could not afford to hire them.

5 years of award-winning pro bono advisors
These planners, who have been honored with the Pro Bono Award, model ways advisors can help people in need.

“Didi has been our go-to. She is one of those people who combine compassion and laser focus,” says Marcelle Miles, Britepaths’ financial literacy director. “Bringing together volunteer financial experts with nonprofit clients, our families and the entire community become stronger.”

Britepaths provides emergency services to help pay for clients’ food, car repairs, rent and utility bills. However, the organization also teaches long-term empowerment via several financial literacy programs.

“The financial literacy piece is one that few nongovernmental organizations have fully developed,” Miles says.

When other nonprofits need help from planners, Britepaths connects them with free services from CFPs, CPAs, MBAs and people with finance degrees. It also offers workshops, a financial counseling clinic, single one-on-one planning sessions and a financial mentorship program.

Last year, 64 low-income people worked with Britepaths’ financial mentors for six months or longer.

Dorsett started at the nonprofit by shadowing other planning volunteers, while studying to take the CFP exam, which she passed in 2015.

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During those first engagements, she would pull credit reports and otherwise listen in. In that way, she used volunteering to help carve her transition into the profession.

After 20 years in the Navy and another seven with a defense contractor, Dorsett says, she was ready for a change. “I wanted something different and more meaningful,” she says, “a sense of being able to give back.”

Most of her planning sessions are one-offs, without follow-ups, she says, by design. Her approach is similar to the one she uses with her paying clients, most of whom meet with her for only a single full session after an initial “get-acquainted” meeting.

If someone is going through a complex divorce, she refers them to a planner who is a certified divorce financial analyst. If they have a special needs child, she finds a CFP with the right background.

Dorsett is a NAPFA member and part of the Garrett Planning Network. When she works with paying clients at her firm, Safe Harbor Financial Advisors in Occoquan, Virginia, she charges clients hourly or by project.

Her clients, many with military backgrounds, tend to come to her at inflection points, often on the cusp of retirement. By gathering the right data and asking the right questions, she intends her short-term guidance to offer long-term impact.

“There’s a set of clients out in the world who aren’t looking for ongoing advice to manage their assets,” she says. “There are a lot of do-it-
yourselfers and folks who are just seeking validation that they are on the right path.”

“As a former naval intelligence officer,” she says, “I spent 20 years taking disparate pieces of information and weaving them together into a coherent story that someone could take action on. I feel I’m well-qualified as an analyst to pull together recommendations and guidance based on your current situation.”

Dorsett set up Stafford and her husband with Simple, a mobile budgeting app and service offered through numerous banks. Stafford used it to create envelopes into which she began saving for specific future expenses.

Stafford took to tracking her expenses in real time on her mobile device so avidly that “now budgeting is my way of my life,” she says today.

That new skill proved invaluable when her husband left a management position and took lower paying work.

By closely watching and managing their cash flow, “it’s been OK,” according to Stafford, a medical assistant, who does life coaching on the side. “We’ve even managed to save up an emergency fund, which has been tremendous, but we haven’t had to tap into that.”

In December, Stafford volunteered to teach a Britepaths class titled Holidays on a Budget. “She’s truly been a superstar,” Dorsett says.

“I got at least as much from them as they did from me,” Dorsett says of the couple. “I’m eternally grateful for getting to meet them. I’m hoping they now will have some new tricks in their toolbox.”

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