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Meet the woman who turned a school bus into a mobile financial literacy hub

Marsha Barnes has never been a fan of blending in, so when the Charlotte, N.C., native decided to start a financial coaching business, she knew leasing a standard office space was out of the question. With more than a decade of experience working as a corporate trainer for a major financial services company, she wanted to deliver personal finance advice to people somewhere they could feel immediately at ease.

So she bought a school bus.

“A school bus, to me, speaks to learning and being in a classroom environment,” says Barnes, 40. She originally thought of going for a food truck, a popular staple in the Charlotte food scene. But for practical reasons (like limited space and lack of windows), a school bus made more sense.

She found the bus, a 45-foot gas guzzler, on — where else? — Craigslist. A local pilot was selling it for $3,500 (his wife, a farmer, had used it to transport her horses). Barnes hired an interior designer, installed comfy seating and built stations where people could review their budgets, turning the bus into a financial literacy hub on wheels. The idea of having people sit on mini bar stools during her consultations gave her the inspiration for her new venture’s name — The Finance Bar.

On the bus, Barnes offers group workshops and seminars (which can be booked in advance)  on a range of basic financial topics, like paying down debt, building a budget, managing money as a couple, or teaching college students the saving and spending skills they don’t typically learn on campus. Individuals can sign up for $10/month virtual members club. With her financial services experience, she became a Certified Financial Educator, a designation for professionals who specialize in teaching money management skills and financial literacy.

TaLaya Brown, 30, a self-employed manicurist, first sought out Barnes for advice on how to budget for both business and personal expenses. Now she’s a member of The Finance Bar’s virtual members club.

“Ever since I started to work with her, it put everything in perspective for me,” Brown says. “She told me how to get an accountant to set up an LLC for my business and how to start paying myself as opposed to putting all of my money into one personal account.”

The Finance Bar officially hit the road in November 2014. We caught up with Barnes to see how business is going nearly a year since her launch.

Photo: Maya Elious and Joshua Galloway

What on earth made you want to start a financial coaching business on a bus?

I have an extreme love for teaching other people about money. Having a son now who’s in college, it makes me more aware that if he doesn’t know how to handle his money, then what’s going to happen when he’s my age? This will become generational. Also, my parents were both laid off within six months of each other back in 2005. But they didn’t panic. They had savings. My mother was always shopping off clearance racks, very frugal. I wanted others to have that same confidence they had when that happened to them.

How much have you invested in the business so far?

I spent about $20,000 for renovations and a lot of maintenance, which makes it about $35,000 and still growing. The bus needed a new radiator. That was $4,000 out of my pocket.  I pay about $208 a month for an insurance policy. This is all coming from me, my savings. I was very nervous about it and my husband was like, ‘No way!’ I’m still nervous. I’ve had a lot of support but it hasn’t been a year yet. A lot still needs to happen before I can say it’s a financial success.

What kind of services do you offer on the bus?

People come on and can “order” from our menu. I can help them build a savings plan, pay off debt, learn about credit reports, building up their credit score. I can help them with questions about their business, like how to set up an LLC, and connect them to other experts if they need something like help with taxes. I don’t sell any products like loans or credit reports. I don’t talk about investing or your 401(k). I am not an investment pro. I like to call myself a finance coach. I have an app that is an expense tracker which you can download for free.

How do you earn money?

I just got approved for non-profit 501(c)3 status, which means I can fundraise and apply for grants. So far I’ve been financing this entirely out of my savings. I also have a virtual members club with over 300 members. They pay $10 a month and get access to financial workbooks and I have a monthly webinar with a certified financial expert to cover different topics.

Where does the bus go?

I don’t just drive to people’s homes. I work with colleges and organizations and set up a time to come for a day or two. I’m committed to the idea of being mobile and I’d eventually like to have a bus in several different states. I want to reach people that can’t travel [to] places. I want to be able to visit women’s shelters, domestic abuse shelters. I go to homeless shelters sometimes now. When I’m not driving, I park it at a lot for $55 a month, which has security.

What’s your typical client like?

I’m specifically working with women and also some couples. The young ladies in the virtual membership club can’t afford to pay someone $200 an hour to speak with them. They’re getting the best of both worlds with me.

How do you juggle The Finance Bar with your full-time job as a corporate trainer?

Anytime I have to do sessions for The Finance Bar, either I plan to be off work or I set appointments up for the weekend. It can be mentally and physically draining trying to do both but it’s a journey. You have to see how things are going to work out first. That’s the reality of life. I’m down for the ride, literally.

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Mandi Woodruff is a reporter for Yahoo Finance and host of the weekly podcast Brown Ambition. Follow her on Tumblr or Facebook.