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Marsha Barnes, her financial literacy bus are on the move in Charlotte

Marsha Barnes launched The Finance Bar, a mobile personal finance hub based out of a retrofitted school bus.
Marsha Barnes launched The Finance Bar, a mobile personal finance hub based out of a retrofitted school bus. JOSHUA AURELIUS GALLOWAY

Marsha Barnes says that when both her parents were laid off from their jobs of 20-plus years, neither one of them panicked.

That’s because their lifestyle of living below their means – from skipping call waiting for their home phone service, to clothes-shopping only from the sales rack – served them well, Barnes says.

“It was more of an inconvenience to them, rather than an emergency,” recalls Barnes, who is 39 and a Lancaster, S.C., native. “That’s a huge difference.”

Their lifelong habits motivated Barnes to pursue her passion in personal finance. In November, she launched The Finance Bar, a mobile personal finance hub based in a retrofitted school bus. Barnes says Charlotte's food-truck boom provided inspiration for the business model.

She drives her “financial literacy bus” around town, consulting with clients on budgeting and saving strategies. Barnes also has an online club – with members as distant as Guam – through which she helps clients build healthy financial habits.

Her business model caught the attention of CharlotteBusinessResources.com, a website managed by the city of Charlotte and other organizations. Last week, Barnes was named the winner of the group’s custom app giveaway contest, hosted with the help of CGR Creative. (The contest was part of Charlotte Small Business Month this May.)

Barnes says she is not a financial adviser, but a personal finance consultant who helps people with the basics: “‘Why is credit important? Why shouldn't I use my credit card all the time? Why is savings important?’ I just wanted to bring that to the forefront.”

She shares her story on why she and her family invested personal funds to launch a business that she hopes will help people realize that “even if you’re in debt, the sun will shine again.” Her story has been edited for clarity and brevity.

‘Terrified of the pink slip’: I’ve been in the finance business for at least 12 years. Prior to launching The Finance Bar in November 2014, I had a nonprofit, Financial Empowerment Charlotte. I realized there was really a need in our community for education around personal finances in general.

For many people, around 2005, getting laid off was a blow for them. It completely changed their lives. Seeing people being terrified of the pink slip, and the stress of living paycheck to paycheck, that bothered me.

No storefront: Charlotte is a huge banking city. I didn’t know what the response would be if I set up a brick-and-mortar shop. I didn’t want to lose money. For many spaces that I looked at, the space would cost approximately $2,000 a month. My bus was less than $5,000. I have commercial insurance for the vehicle, and rental space to keep the bus. The comparison is a lot less expensive for a mobile operation.

Husband takes the wheel: I found the bus on Craigslist. I purchased it from a pilot out in Lake Norman. It’s a 1988 International bus, just like a school bus, just not as long as a regular-sized bus. My husband, Roy, drove it straight to the mechanic. I was scared.

I met with an interior designer, Quin Gwinn Interiors in Charlotte. Another individual I met on Craigslist, a carpenter, did all the woodwork. (Barnes said she spent $3,500 on the bus and about $20,000 in renovations).

‘Bar’ in the business name: Inside of the bus, it’s really set up like a bar. There’s an area for coffee, tea and water. Colors inside are yellow, black, white, coral and some sprinkles of green – that signifies money for me. There’s a laptop at every workstation. Bar stools are yellow, and I have a mini-couch toward the back exit, also yellow. Money is such a sensitive subject for people, and yellow is such a happy color.

The cheapest session is $30, none goes beyond $55. Sessions range from creating a budget, to how to read a credit report, to understanding what a credit report is, to managing debt.

I also have a members club. It’s a $10 monthly membership fee. They get a workbook, a session, and they receive challenges throughout the month. That’s spread from Charlotte to Guam. I have no idea how they even found it.

Library parking lot: When people book a session, I usually work with the local libraries and ask [if I can] park in their parking lot. They’ve always been receptive. I try to have appointments on Saturday. I’ll park the bus in the lot and meet with the client. If it’s during the week, I’ll get in my car.

I participated in Career Day for Charlotte-Mecklenburg students. Any student that wanted to could get on the bus and see inside.

(Barnes said she plans to park The Finance Bar bus next at the South End Saturday on June 6.)

New app on the way: I launched my own app called The Finance Bar: Expense Manager.

With the Charlotte Business Resources app, I think I want to use it for college students, something that would benefit them. Some people have tuition debt. You’re kind of stuck. It’s almost like you’re lost as soon as you leave school.

Hitting the road: South End Saturdays is my start. We have Speed Street, Southern Women’s Show, For Sisters Only, CIAA. I have never been to any of them and met someone talking about personal finance, except for big banks. I want to change that. I take people’s personal finances personally.

Getting up to speed

Marsha Barnes said when she launched The Finance Bar mobile bus, she pulled out her business books from her undergrad and graduate studies at Montreat College to learn how to run her venture. Here’s what else she does:

▪ She joined the online Female Entrepreneur Association. “It is very helpful in understanding a lot of what goes into building a business and growing a business.”

▪ She reads business books and magazines, including Inc., Black Enterprise and Entrepreneur. “That’s what I do in my downtime, trying to get better and keeping myself knowledgeable in operating a business.”

▪ She practices what she teaches. “I am a budgeting fanatic,” Barnes said. “For a year, I didn’t vacation. ... I didn’t go shopping for an entire year. Those are sacrifices I made before I even launched.”

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