After 13 years working in a state government agency that she helped found, the writing on the wall was clear for Erica Wexler.

She had certainly grown in her communications, outreach and training role, but opportunities for growth hit a ceiling. Leadership was reshuffling, the organization was being streamlined. It was time to pass the baton.

In August 2018, Wexler’s position was eliminated, and she left the organization after a three-month transition period passed. Wexler had more than 20 years’ experience in change facilitation, virtual and face-to-face training, speaking and coaching. She had been picking up consulting projects on the side since 2015, and she continued building her business. She took on debt to invest heavily in herself and the business to expand her skillset. But in December 2018 (her first month without a steady paycheck), she had booked only $500 a month in business for the next six months.

“I had a huge amount of anxiety and a huge amount of stress. I wasn’t being very transparent or honest with my finances,” she says.

That’s when she reached out to Northwestern Mutual financial advisor Eric Knoblauch. He didn’t wave a magic wand or “make the numbers work”. Instead, they had candid, honest, non-judgmental conversations about money and Wexler’s goals. The two worked together to build a short- and long-term financial plan. He also set up some tools so Wexler could accurately track her budget, revenue, expenses and progress on a single screen. With a clear understanding of the numbers, and a new relationship with her money, Wexler’s business began to thrive. Her financial recovery had begun.

IT STARTED WITH HONESTY

In their initial conversations, Knoblauch asked Wexler about her goals, specifically what she wanted to accomplish in life — personally and professionally. She was also brutally honest about where she was financially.

“I have to pay the bills. I need to bring money in. I want to have real impact and not just take any job or client that offers a paycheck. I told Eric my primary goal was to be self-sufficient, so I didn’t have to rely on family or get a roommate,” she says. “Being this close to 50 years old, my independence wasn’t negotiable.”

Wexler says the best part of their conversations was the absence of judgment from Knoblauch — he was simply honest and straightforward. She also gives a lot of credit to the digital tools Knoblauch built so she could see the big picture and zoom in on the details.

“It was the first time I objectively saw all of my fiscal goals, my financial strengths and weaknesses, in one place. It was the first time I was absolutely transparent about my debt, spending, revenue and savings,” Wexler says. “From that point on, my relationship with money was entirely different. I began to enjoy the freedom that came with being honest.”

Seeing it all together in one place allowed Wexler to make smarter decisions about paying debt, paying herself, saving or investing in her business. Her finances became a source of strength, not anxiety.

“Every time I got anxious, I looked at my numbers and realized I was doing OK. It became my stress reliever,” she says. “The freedom that came with that reassurance was motivating and fun!”

NEXT CAME GROWTH

Wexler’s financial honesty formed a firm foundation to shift her business, Erica Wexler Transforms, into growth mode. By February 2019, she had contracted a six-month corporate training gig that grew from facilitating a handful of sessions to a 30-session package. Another client added a coaching package to her training program. She was hired as an instructional design consultant for a school district. A major university contacted her to facilitate professional development sessions for faculty and staff. She landed a huge consulting project with a Philadelphia-based nonprofit. She hired two contractors to support her clients.

Clearly, something was brewing. Coincidentally, during that period of intense growth, Wexler got a call from a major consulting firm she had interviewed with in early 2018. They offered her a full-time position as a change management communications consultant. It was the right salary. It was stability. It was an incredibly exciting opportunity. It was, if she was being honest, everything she thought she had always wanted.

“I had to make a decision. I considered the impact I was having as an entrepreneur. I objectively evaluated my financial situation. I looked at the numbers for my business and I said, ‘You know what, I’m sticking with this. There’s something here. I’m getting traction,’” she says. “It was a no-brainer to commit to my clients and continue building my business. I declined the offer.”

Wexler says having that full view of her finances, along with regular consultations with Knoblauch, changed the decision calculus for her. It allowed her to make a decision for herself, and not out of fear or the need for stability. Because she had changed her mindset about money, she was free to pursue something bigger. She had options.

“If they had offered me that job before I talked with Eric, if I hadn’t changed my mindset about money, I might have made a much different decision. And who knows where I’d be now,” Wexler says.

It was a good decision. Her business grew rapidly in 2019, and the momentum carried into 2020. Wexler was winning big project proposals with major companies. She expanded her team and hired six consultants.

AN UNEXPECTED TURN

Then, the novel coronavirus brought the entire economy to a halt. Wexler’s business wasn’t immune from the broad impacts. Clients were freezing budgets and deciding whether to cancel training contracts. Universities were moving programs online and cancelling in-person staff development sessions. Speaking engagements were halted.

But unlike the high stress she experienced in 2018, she isn’t feeling anxious, despite some unanticipated instability. Together, Knoblauch and Wexler modeled out worst-case scenarios and built multiple short- and long-term plans. She had been saving for retirement and she had built up an emergency fund. She was clear on the amount she needed to sustain her overhead and continue paying her consulting team. She adapted her business model to focus solely on strengthening her virtual training and coaching program. Working with Knoblauch, she also applied for, and received, the PPP and EIDL grants and loans made possible through the Small Business Association (SBA).

“I’m not stressed, and that feels almost odd because so many people around me are feeling really anxious right now,” says Wexler.

The good news is that Wexler has taken the current situation as an opportunity to help her clients successfully transition to the virtual workplace. Her client contracts remain intact and she has a growing cache of business and speaking engagements on the books through early fall. With so much ongoing uncertainty, however, Wexler is also keeping a very close eye on the numbers. She checks in more regularly with Knoblauch to assess and revise her current financial plan. She is determined to be as prepared as possible, regardless of whatever unexpected changes hit the business world in the months to come.

THE ULTIMATE REWARD: PEACE OF MIND

Wexler says having a better handle on her money allows her to make smarter decisions, which has made her business stronger. Her financial freedom has also positively influenced just about every other facet of her life.

“When money and finances are a source of anxiety, my self-care and wellbeing take a hit. Feeling safe and secure with money instantly translates into taking better care of myself,” she says. “It’s all directly connected.”

“Today, I’m building a business, and a life, based upon the impact I want to have. I’m making choices purposefully, and that’s been so important,” she says with a smile.

And it all started with a conversation, with a commitment to knowing the numbers — and with a few financial tools.

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