Evolving Your Financial Wellness Program in 2020

By including the right elements in a financial wellness program, employers can help employees squirrel away more emergency and retirement savings.

As retirement plan sponsors continue to witness that employees who have their financial house in order are better able to save for retirement, financial wellness programs evolve.

For example, they are shifting from general financial education to become more tailored for different demographic groups and ages. Plan sponsors are also starting to offer financial wellness programs that motivate and prompt employees to take action to improve their financial outlook.

To achieve this, a financial wellness program needs to include an adviser or coach, some say. “There are many financial wellness programs out there, but they don’t get used unless they are paired with a coach, accountability for the participant and making the participant confident enough to use them,” says Jim McDonald, a partner with Channel Financial. “On January 2, the gym is packed. On February 2, it is empty—unless you have a personal trainer keeping you on track. The same concept applies with a financial coach.”

It is also important to suggest participant goals that seem attainable, says Kenneth Forsythe, head of products strategy at Empower Retirement. This is why Empower developed a new tool, the Next Step Evaluator, he said. Empower plans on rolling out the tool, now in pilot, to all of its clients by this coming February. “Don’t overwhelm people with the entire path they must take to achieve a financial goal,” he said. “Instead, focus on the very next step they must take, the best use of [their] next dollar. Maybe that’s establishing an emergency savings account.”

A recent report from Cerulli, “U.S. Retirement End-Investor 2019: Driving Participant Outcomes With Financial Wellness Programs,” agrees with this premise.

“Individuals must be triggered to enact changes that affect their financial lives in a positive way,” says Dan Cook, a research analyst with Cerulli. “So, providers must consistently collect data to identify engagement strategies that resonate most with specific groups and craft digital experiences through which a participant’s ‘next best action’ is only one or two clicks away.”

The Cerulli report says participants’ primary sources of financial stress are healthcare expenses, cited by 30.5%, insufficient retirement savings (25.7%), monthly bills (10.7%), inadequate emergency savings (10.6%), credit card debt (8.4%), and student loan debt (4.7%).

It says health savings accounts (HSAs) could help participants with their health care expenses, but few participants know much about them, particularly that they can use the accounts to invest. Plan sponsors should educate participants about using HSAs as a retirement benefit, starting with their triple tax advantages, Cerulli says. Moreover, sponsors should not just try to educate participants about HSAs at the annual benefit enrollment period but throughout the year.

Emergency savings has also become an important part of financial wellness programs, as the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) has found that 75% of households headed by a participant in a defined contribution (DC) plan have only three to four months’ worth of savings, which EBRI says is inadequate. Today, 20% of employers offer some type of program to help their employees have adequate emergency savings.

These include a rainy day savings program within a defined contribution (DC) plan, a rainy day savings account alongside a DC plan and a rainy day savings account separate from a DC plan.

In line with this, many sponsors have learned that debt is preventing their workers from saving for retirement. A survey of participants by PwC found that 49% said they find it difficult to meet household expenses on time each month. Eighty-two percent expect to be working during retirement (50% part-time and 32% full-time). A mere 18% are not planning on working in retirement.

Here is where financial wellness programs need to be personalized and actionable: PwC says that while 80% of employers report having a financial wellness program, some of these programs are still primarily focused on retirement savings and fail to address the wide variety of financial issues that workers are grappling with every day. As well, they do not offer workers an opportunity to sit down one-on-one with a financial adviser.

“Employees crave the element of human interaction,” PwC says. “Successful financial wellness programs find the optimal way to shape the relationship between technology and human interaction, delivering the motivation employees need to achieve their goals.”

Financial wellness programs also need to consistently engage participants. Financial Finesse’s 2018 Financial Wellness Year in Review report includes the results of a multi-year study focusing on 2,458 employees who regularly engaged with their employer’s financial wellness program in the five years between 2013 and 2018. The study found that the employees improved in all areas of financial planning—with the greatest level of improvement in retirement preparedness.

In 2013, 21% of participants said they were prepared for retirement. By 2018, that had jumped to 57%.

Other improvements included a 50% increase in average retirement plan deferral rates, from 6.3% to 9.4%. Average contributions to an HSA rose by 41%, from $934 to $1,319. The percentage of people who felt confident in their retirement strategy rose from 43% to 69%.

Dave Kilby, president of FinFit, agrees with all of the aforementioned developments in financial wellness programs and shares tips with PLANSPONSOR on how sponsors can make these improvements.

To create a financial wellness program that is personalized for each individual’s income, spending habits and long-term goals, all a sponsor needs to do is to analyze human resource and payroll data, Kilby says.

“The Financial Health Network, a great [resource], has defined what a successful financial wellness program should consist of,” Kilby says. “The four pillars they talk about are: plan, spend, save and borrow. Other financial wellness programs deal with individual silos. The Financial Health Network advocates a comprehensive approach to those four pillars in a financial wellness program that looks at each separate employee as an individual and drives behavioral change.”