Lessons Learned From Public Employee Financial Wellness Programs

Employers that were part of an initiative to start or improve their programs—using a wide variety of approaches—shared challenges, surprises, rewards and advice.

Employee engagement and seeing a positive impact on participants’ lives were cited as the most rewarding outcomes by a majority of public employers included in a financial wellness initiative by a MissionSquare Research Institute. The effort was a collaboration with the International Public Management Association for Human Resources and the National Association of State Treasurers Foundation, with funding from the Wells Fargo Foundation.

The one-year initiative awarded $1.4 million in grants to 24 public employers to establish or improve public employee financial wellness programs. To review the program’s successes and lessons learned, a set of financial wellness fact sheets highlight each employer’s approach, outcomes and future plans. They provide ideas, advice and networking opportunities for other public employers exploring financial wellness programs.

Many participants in the initiative expressed surprise at how many employees engaged with their new or revised financial wellness programs. However, the engagement falls in line with findings of a 2019 survey by MissionSquare Research Institute (formerly the Center for State and Local Government Excellence). That survey found nearly two-thirds (65%) of public sector employees believe it is important to have a financial literacy program offered by their employer. However, only three in 10 reported being offered one. Seven in 10 said they would participate in one if offered.

Employers that participated in the initiative found employees want help with a wide variety of financial issues. For example, Central Carolina Community College in Sanford, North Carolina, offered online workshops taught by employees who became certified financial wellness facilitators. The workshops covered topics such as introduction to financial wellness, budgeting, emergency funds, financial goals, credit, debt reduction, loans, refinancing, retirement and more. However, while feedback about the program was positive, employees wanted more information about retirement planning, insurance, estate planning, improving credit and loans, which facilitators were not prepared or trained to provide. The college said its biggest lesson learned is that employees would greatly appreciate it if the college brought someone in who is able to provide education on these topics in the future.

Employers used a wide variety of approaches under the grant program. Their results included more employee engagement with benefits, greater participation in retirement and other benefits programs, and higher contributions to savings programs. For example, the city of Allen, Texas, reported 56 first-time participants to its 457 retirement plan, a 145% increase in employee contributions to health savings accounts, and increased contributions to the 457 plan by an average of $161 per pay check.

The city also reported that employees are actively budgeting, saving for emergencies, eliminating debt, increasing savings and stopping their use of credit cards. They are taking an active interest in saving for retirement and better managing HSA and 457 contributions to maximize those benefits, as well as digging deeper into how to maximize benefits offered by the city.

Program participants noted that they faced some challenges, including reaching employees who do not have computer access or do not check email, having too few staff members responsible for the financial wellness program, pandemic demands competing for priority, effectively marketing events, overcoming employee inertia and finding providers/facilitators that were not interested in selling products.

Public employers involved in the initiative also shared tips or “lessons learned.” For example, the Finance Authority of Maine, in Augusta, said: “Involve employees in the design of the program to help ensure buy-in. Recruit a staff member to help serve as a champion or advocate for the program. Offer a variety of resources and delivery methods. Digital financial wellness tools help supplement knowledge. Incentives are very effective for maintaining enthusiasm and engagement.”

The Illinois State Treasurer’s Office, in Springfield, gave this advice to other public employers: “Consider administering surveys, hosting focus groups and using other observational methods to effectively gauge the level of financial literacy among employees. Program offerings should be tailored to meet the current and future needs of employees. The program should also be flexible in how information is presented (e.g., webinars, seminars, 1:1 coaching sessions).”

Program participants included a variety of sizes and types of employers, so other public employers can read about the experience of entities and jurisdictions similar to them. The fact sheets are available at https://slge.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/financial-wellness-grant-fact-sheets.pdf.

The partnership also included the development of a financial wellness toolkit. These resources include a series of reference materials and guides on hosting virtual and in-person financial wellness conferences/meetings; a customizable speaker’s financial wellness toolkit; and a census of existing state financial wellness and education programs. All of these materials are available at https://nast.org/financialwellness/.