Holistic Attack on ‘Real’ Retirement Problem

Dave Ramsey’s SmartDollar takes a holistic approach to retirement education, focusing on behavior and teaching people the basics: budgeting, saving for an emergency and getting out of debt. 

Retirement plan participants who are broke can’t save for retirement, says Dave Ramsey. The solution? Get them financially well.

Ramsey, the personal finance guru, host of a daily finance show and author of several books on getting out of debt, is looking to bring a program to plan sponsors that gives them common-sense information about making and sticking to a budget, eliminating debt and building—at least initially—a $1,000 emergency fund.

“SmartDollar is a retirement education platform for advisers and plan sponsors to use to drive participation and contribution rates by focusing on the real problem,” says Brian Hamilton vice president of financial wellness at Ramsey’s company, The Lampo Group Inc. The real problem, Hamilton tells PLANSPONSOR, is behavior.

The pain points plan sponsors and plan advisers see in a 401(k) plan are rates that should be higher. Citing statistics on the low average balances and poor participation by workers, Hamilton says Dave Ramsey’s methods get to the root of why people are failing to save. “Because they are broke,” he says flatly.

Other alarming statistics Hamilton cites—that 70% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and 24% of the average household paycheck goes to paying off consumer debt—point to a widespread problem for Americans, that being broke is normal for many people, he says. “They are deeply in debt, have no money in the bank, would have to borrow money to cover a $1,000 emergency,” he says.

The Dave Ramsey franchise believes that personal finance is 80% behavior and 20% “head knowledge.” According to Hamilton, this means people know what to do with their money, but when it comes to doing the right thing, they simply lack practice. Comparing financial behaviors to diet and exercise, he says, “Everyone knows how, but it’s the doing that makes a difference.”

The retirement industry’s problem, Hamilton contends, is that it is asking people to do something they are simply unable to do, given their current financial state. “(In sales), we’re told not to call on an unqualified prospect,” he says. “In the retirement world, we’re trying to get people to invest when they have no money.”

Until retirement plan participants have money, there is no point in talking to them about where to invest, he says.The industry has tried to get people on track, but it uses the wrong methods. It has tried treating the symptoms—low contribution and participation rates, and small balances—with “boring one-hour financial seminars that talk about asset quality and rate of return. Who cares about the beta of a mutual fund if you don’t have any money in the mutual fund?” he says.

The crucial part of retirement savings success is savings rates, Hamilton says. Automatic enrollment and auto-escalation are positive features, but they have limits: “You can’t ‘auto’ broke people,” he says, and the rates start people off at 3%, which is too low and takes too long to get people to a 10% savings rate, which is still inadequate.

Hamilton is also dismissive of investment advice in the form of calculators, forms and tools. No one uses them, he says, comparing them to a treadmill in the basement, with clothes hanging on it. “It works if you use it,” he observes.

Getting back to basics is the only thing that works, Hamilton says, and the Dave Ramsey program has kept statistics on people who have implemented the steps: “They’re able to invest 15% into retirement,” he says. The average person can accomplish the first “baby step”—accumulating an emergency fund of $1,000—in about one month. What the program provides is the education and motivation to get started.

“People don’t know where to start,” Hamilton says. Beginning with the concrete, achievable amount in the emergency fund gives people a very clear direction. The program then dictates achievable goals to give participants a feeling of traction.

The focus on real-life money is effective. Last fall, the Fiduciary Plan Advisors team at HighTower adopted SmartDollar for its retirement plan clients. The program’s approach is radically different from most other financial wellness programs, says Jania Stout, managing director and co-founder of Fiduciary Plan Advisors. “It’s a huge difference, from talking about asset allocation,” Stout tells PLANSPONSOR.

“You weren’t really changing lives.” So far, Stout says, the reaction to SmartDollar has been positive emails from participants, and the impact is bigger than from financial education.

Dave Ramsey’s books and show concentrate ways of eliminating debt, and so does SmartDollar. Instead of asking people to wipe out their largest debts first, SmartDollar starts with the smallest. This allows participants to create a debt snowball, in which the eradication of debts gathers momentum as each is crossed off the list, Hamilton explains. “You can pick up more speed going down the hill,” he says. Paying off debts quickly keeps people inspired. Once debts are paid, the participant has freed up his income, the largest wealth-building tool, and can now begin to pay 15% into a retirement account.

The program is a fresh approach, Hamilton says, and proven to work. It has the advantages of a scalable, turnkey program with creative and marketing department support that personalizes the program for participants, who can access the platform via mobile device 24/7. Mobile access is a key driver, according to Hamilton, because it allows people to do the program at their own pace and get spouses involved. About two-thirds of the traffic comes from mobile use, he says.

Program cost is based on the number of participants and, according to a Groom Law Group attorney, is an allowable ERISA expense, Hamilton says. Employee success and engagement rates are kept confidential but are aggregated back to the adviser and to the plan sponsor. The information may be used internally by a company to market the program.

“Changing people’s behavior is hard,” Hamilton says. “If it were easy, everyone would be wealthy.” But the average types of financial education have not worked. Why focus on the wrong way, when a holistic approach gets results?

More information is at the Dave Ramsey SmartDollar website.