Financial Advice, From One Hill Staffer to Another

It's often hard to make ends meet as a Capitol Hill staffer, especially early in a career. Neal A. Patel learned to make his dollars stretch in August 2010 when he quit practicing law to take an internship in the office of Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C. He put in about five frugal months as an unpaid intern before being offered a full-time, salaried gig. "You love your work, but Washington is an expensive city, right?" said Patel, now communications director for Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., R-La. To wit, he wants to teach fellow staffers how to better manage their personal finances. "You're just trying to try to figure out how to pay your rent. You're trying to figure out how to buy food. For most of us, you're trying to figure out how to get home, because nobody is from D.C. originally." On May 14, Patel will offer pointers on budgeting, paying off student loan and credit card debt, saving for retirement and an array of other pertinent topics for public servants trying to pay the bills. He's teaching a 6 p.m. class on "Finance 101" at the Cornerstone Government Affairs office at 300 Independence Ave. SE. The class will be catered to helping Hill staffers tap into the resources at their disposal — such as the Congressional Federal Credit Union. "Professionally, we realize that relationships make this town go. In your personal life, having a banker that you can talk to at a one-on-one level does make a difference," Patel said. He wants to educate staffers in their early 20s on issues like credit reports and compound interest, so by their early 30s they can manage major money matters, like buying an engagement ring, a car or a home. Patel can share some of the personal lessons he learned while navigating similar financial decisions on a Hill salary. He and his wife are still trying to tackle her student loans, he said, and they just purchased a house. The class could also be well-suited to a 30-something legislative director, he said, experiencing "your first time not living paycheck to paycheck." It’s been four years since anyone has conducted a study of the market value of Hill staff. When the Sunlight Foundation looked into salary data in 2010, they found a clear gap between congressional and private sector pay, with the widest divide at the top. The gap is likely growing, as the pool of funds each member gets to fund staff salaries and other official expenses continues to shrink. Members’ Representational Allowances have been on the decline since 2010, according to a January 2014 Congressional Research Service report on the subject. Patel wants to make his class a networking event. He's encouraging attendees to bring a slim stack of business cards in the hopes they can build a community of financially savvy friends.  Staffers have to pony up $50 for two hours of financial training — the cost of a couple rounds of drinks in D.C. Given "the average price of a beer around Capitol Hill," Patel reasons it's a bargain.  Staffers might reason, "I can't go out for two nights, but I'm able to start looking at building my own financial IQ," he said.