The initial idea for Community Ladders (CL) came when Bill Varettoni was living on the Mexican border in McAllen, Texas in 2008. Around tax time, Bill decided he would prepare taxes for Teach for America teachers for a small fee. Since most of them were fresh out of college, he also gave them some basic financial planning advice. Bill discovered that many of these bright, motivated and high-performing people were making similar mistakes and poor financial decisions. At the same time, McAllen had a huge concentration of payday loan places. With their high interest rates and easily available cash advances, Bill understood this as a symptom of a larger problem that his neighbors were having with successfully managing their own finances. Nonetheless, he fully expected someone to soon develop a solution that gives trustworthy, personalized advice to people making less than $100,000 a year.
Bill went from Texas to the State Department in Washington, D.C., and also worked on his Ph.D in Public Policy. The financial crisis came and exacerbated the effects of poor planning; it also showed the systematic willingness of some large banks and financial firms to take advantage of the poor and middle class. Despite the upheaval, very little surfaced in terms of professional planning aimed at the non-affluent, and none that was face-to-face.
Alarmed by both the choices made – as well as the choices available – to the communities he was interested in helping, Bill started preparing to make his idea a reality. The feedback he received from the business community wasn’t very positive. After all, the idea of a social business (defined as a sustainable business devoted to solving a social problem) isn’t popular with everyone and many felt the idea couldn’t generate enough demand to sustain itself. In his heart, Bill knew that people wanted and needed such a service. As if to spite the naysayers, Bill quickly hung out a shingle and started Community Ladders.
Bill left government service and started CL with his own savings. He devoted himself to creating a different kind of financial planning firm – one that could put its clients first instead of its partners and shareholders. The beginnings were certainly difficult, and the challenges continue, but CL has remained true to the original vision and mission of making financial planning affordable and creating a consumer protection organization that protects its members’ wealth. Today, CL is staffed by a core group of volunteers who believe in the idea that financial planning isn’t just for the rich, but for anyone.
“I’m incredibly proud of the team of volunteers working to build CL, and that share in the vision. But there are still all those who expect us to fail, and that gets tiring to hear. But, then, I’ll work with a new member and get them on track. Sometimes, they’ll even breakdown in tears when they get a sense of restored control. Seeing the impact we’re having energizes me again.”-Bill Varettoni, Founder
“We will use our low-cost financial planning services to create a community that uses its collective weight to bargain for better rates and safer contracts. The vision is that CL can eventually negotiate any financial product or service members want, and they would know that we’re reading the fine print, protecting them, and making sure they’re getting a good deal.”-Bill Varettoni, Founder