Aspire Spring 2021

Building futures one candid conversation at a time


Crystal Alford-Cooper helps people calm their financial anxieties with straight talk and empathy.

Let Crystal Alford-Cooper spend time with your kids and they’re going to learn about the time value of money, they’re going to invest for their futures and they might just become Steelers fans.

As the vice president of planning for Law & Associates of Glen Echo, Maryland, and a prolific financial literacy educator in her community, Alford-Cooper knows that the key to long-term well-being starts with direct, honest and empathetic advice.

“It’s not what you make, it’s what you do with it,” she said. “It’s about educating and learning and helping people understand. What inspires me to take on the role of educator? It’s when people get it. Young people, if you can get to them early, you’ve done something important that they’ll pass on to someone else.”

When Alford-Cooper learns her friends’ kids take on summer jobs, she makes sure to ask them how much they’re setting aside for their futures. And she’s going to tell their parents they can encourage good financial behaviour by sweetening the pot. It’s not everyone’s favourite conversation, but eventually they’re glad they had it.

The approach works for finances, as it does for being the best Steelers fan recruiter this side of the Monongahela River. When the Baltimore Colts left her hometown in 1984, Alford-Cooper felt betrayed and adopted Pittsburgh’s team as her own. In addition to setting many young people on a course for their futures, her chats have also created a number of households with split loyalties on Sundays.

She sees her work with young people and others who may never have spoken to a professional about their finances as an essential part of her career. Knowing that children who grow up in poverty are far less likely to find financial success in their lives, Alford-Cooper, like her mentor, the late Sally Law – a pioneer in financial services and the first woman on Raymond James’ Chairman’s Council* – knows you can improve the lives of generations with some information and encouragement.

Law encouraged people of all walks to set aside even some money for their futures, and to think about finances differently, Alford-Cooper said.

Alford-Cooper continues this important community work alongside several municipal and civic programs, and through church ministries, educating people on basic financial literacy and empowering them to participate.

“This is Sally’s legacy that we carry out today.”

*Membership is based mainly on assets under management, education, credentials and fiscal year production. Requalification is required annually.
The ranking may not be representative of any one client’s experience, is not an endorsement, and is not indicative of an adviser’s future performance.
No fee is paid in exchange for this award/rating.

Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP®, Certified Financial Planner™,  and in the U.S., which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.

Great women’s examples

It may be no surprise Alford-Cooper was raised by a strong woman who knew the value of candid conversation.

Her mother, Shirley, worked overnight as a long-distance switchboard operator in Baltimore, where she was often requested by name for essential, time-zone crossing international business calls.

“I definitely get my sense of having no ‘stranger danger’ from her. She was really lively and loved life. She came from humble beginnings, she worked her way up, and she had four daughters. She was the best,” Alford-Cooper said. Shirley passed in 1997, “much too soon. She taught me how to roller skate, how to ski, she never complained and our house was the neighbourhood place to be. She sacrificed so much for us.

“We were poor, but we had no idea we were poor.”

Alford-Cooper sees her work with young people and others who may never have spoken to a professional about their finances as an essential part of her career.

Shirley was a stickler for education, and saw her most important job as “raising great women,” Alford-Cooper said. Many of her most important lessons were shown by how she lived her life and interacted with people.

Shirley also built tight family bonds that have held fast as her daughters grew up. They regularly hold family Zoom meetings to cross the distances and pandemics. And when Alford-Cooper needed a kidney in 2006, her sisters jumped in line to donate.

“She treated you like you were a person,” Alford-Cooper said of her mother, “and she expected you to make good choices – so don’t take her for a fool.”

As a kid, Alford-Cooper was always good with numbers and she had worked since she was 13 years old. Sally Law, who was already an icon in the industry when Alford-Cooper answered a want ad for an office administrator, helped her turn it into a career and a calling.

“From day one, she was telling me the things I could do in the industry.”

Within six months of joining the practice, Alford-Cooper had progressed from being an administrative assistant to an associate financial planner.

“Sally wanted people to be successful. She was the perfect person to work for because she would encourage you to do whatever you thought you needed to achieve your goals. She practically raised me in the industry.”

Meeting people where they are

One of Alford-Cooper’s strengths is that she’ll talk to anyone about anything, candidly and completely, even topics that may make others squirm like money, race, religion and divorce.

Good advice often starts with difficult conversations, she said, and it’s better to be direct – but also encouraging.

Most people meeting with a financial adviser for the first time, either as a client or as a participant in a financial literacy program, are nervous. They can be overwhelmed, feel guilty or ashamed and expect to be reminded of all their wouldas, couldas and shouldas.

“I’m kind of a head-on person,” she said, “so I basically will say, ‘This isn’t going to be fun, you’re not going to like it, but you’re going to like it after we deal with it. We’re going to get through it, and here’s how we can get through it.’ Another thing I like about this industry is that the numbers don’t lie. If I know what you make and know what you’re spending, I can put that down on paper and we can go over it without me appearing to be judgmental. As a planner, that’s one thing you can’t be.

“I always try to find something that they’ve done right – you can’t sit down with someone and tell them it’s all terrible. Even if it’s their work or what they do, it’s about being empathetic and yet being real.”

This approach has helped her work with clients taking their financial steps after divorce, which for many, mostly women, can be daunting. In addition to her CFP® and CRC® designations, Alford-Cooper is also a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® (CFDA®).

“We have a lot of women who find themselves single after many years of being married and not really knowing anything about their finances. I don’t want to see people get divorced, but we’ve been able to help a lot of women – and men – move into the next phase of their lives. It’s fulfilling seeing the numbers and knowing what’s going to work for them when initially our client is thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ It’s fulfilling to let them see that not only are they going to make it, they’re going to thrive. It’s a nice part of what we do for a topic that is not pleasant at all.”

“I always try to find something that they’ve done right – you can’t sit down with someone and tell them it’s all terrible. Even if it’s their work or what they do, it’s about being empathetic and yet being real.”

Recognising where people are coming from is always important, she said. Listen well and be responsive, but also work to be culturally literate. If you look past their experiences, you’re just looking past them.

A classic example she uses to explain the idea is about church tithing.

“When you have an adviser meeting with someone from the Black community – and they’re in a faith-based community – and they’re in debt and you’re a steadfast, by-the-numbers adviser, you might suggest they cut back on tithing. But at that moment, you’ve lost them.”

Problems can arise when you approach every client, prospect or member of the public with the same brush, she said. It’s not good to say “I don’t see race” as a way to ignore people’s different experiences and cultural traditions.

“You have to take a different approach. It’s OK to embrace the fact that people are different. And it’s OK to ask questions about it.”

Ultimately, it’s about being willing to connect with people, Alford-Cooper said – a secret to success in life and business – and being an unapologetic advocate for their lives and well-being. And that often means doing something new that may feel uncomfortable, like talking about difficult topics, to break down the barriers that keep people separated.

“It takes being a champion for people.”


*Membership is based mainly on assets under management, education, credentials and fiscal year production. Requalification is required annually.
The ranking may not be representative of any one client’s experience, is not an endorsement, and is not indicative of an adviser’s future performance.
No fee is paid in exchange for this award/rating.

Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP®, Certified Financial Planner™,  and in the U.S., which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.

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