For some, paying bills on time every month is a reflex. But for others, specifically the elderly and people with disabilities, paying bills is a stressful endeavor that sometimes leads to money mismanagement.

Clackamas County, Ore., has developed a money management program that pairs trained volunteers with eligible low-income county clients who have had trouble in the past taking care of their own money.

The program is run by the Community Action Agency, which is part of the county's Social Services Department.

Self-Reliance 101

Established in 1989, the program's goal is to help clients become financially self-sufficient, said Karen Kasserman, supervisor for the Clackamas County Senior Companions Program.

"Most of us didn't grow up to be confined to a care of facility," she said. "It's a quality-of-life issue, respect. So for so many of our clients who may be confused or who may have limitations in their capacities, we have someone make sure their rent, their utilities, their necessities are paid for each month, which creates a stable environment for them."

There is also a real financial benefit to the county, because ensuring and maintaining someone's quality of life in his or her home is ultimately cheaper than paying to keep the person in a care facility.

About 175 volunteers worked approximately 9,000 hours last year, serving 350 clients. Volunteers set out each month to help their clients budget their money, balance their accounts and ensure their monthly bills, including utilities and rent are paid.

In addition, volunteers work on computers with their clients, she said, and teach them to pay their bills online.

The American Association of Retired People, which just awarded the county's program for being the largest of its type, has helped the program with its recruitment. The association sent out approximately 6,000 letters to their members in Clackamas County. Kasserman said that the volunteers' background matters less than whether they can manage their own money.

"Most of them are over 50," she said. "Some are professionals and some are not. We have lumbermen, teachers, nurses' aides and lawyers. We just ask, 'Do you balance your own checkbook? Do you have a desire to do this?'"

To be certified to handle what is considered public monies for the clients, volunteers must be officially appointed as Registered Payees (RP), which allows them to establish a bank account on behalf of their clients at Washington Mutual, the chosen financial institution for the program.

The Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans' Affairs appoint volunteers to be responsible for clients' funds from those respective agencies. Money must be held in separate accounts and not commingled with any other. RPs report to these agencies annually to demonstrate how the money is spent for the clients basic needs.

RPs are responsible for their client's monthly incoming funds in the form of Social Security, Veterans Affairs checks, or federal pensions -- all considered public monies. They deposit the checks into the account they set up for their clients and are responsible for withdrawing the money to pay their clients' bills.

Kasserman said that to protect both volunteers and clients, all bank statements are mailed to the county office and are regularly monitored by 15 volunteers.

Paying bills for clients is not the volunteers' only goal. Some clients want to learn to become self-sufficient when it comes to managing their own money. In some instances, Kasserman said volunteers work on computers with their clients teaching them how to pay their bills online.

Avenue of Assistance

Not just anyone can show up on the program's doorstep looking for money-management help.

"Our referrals come to us from our aging and disability case

Eliot Cole  |  Contributing Writer