Tools, apps, investment advice, or 401(k)s may do a lot of good—but only after employees have learned how to leave behind bad habits and replace them with positive behaviors around money. (Photo: Shutterstock)

HR professionals are always on the lookout for the best in employee benefits – more specifically, a robust well-being program for companies who truly want to help their teams get in better shape financially.

It’s no longer possible to ignore the ongoing personal finance crisis that’s affecting the lives of millions of American workers. Many employers already have a financial wellness program, and the number who do keeps rising. Despite those efforts, the average employee is still broke:

Vulnerable to emergencies. Sixty-nine percent of Americans would be unable to cover a $1,000 emergency today without borrowing. They’re one bad day away from a financial catastrophe.

Staggering levels of debt. Nearly half of Americans owe at least $25,000 in non-mortgage debt, with $37,000 being the average amount. Among all borrowers, 40 percent spend about half their monthly income servicing it.

Unprepared for retirement. Because of the first two issues, most Americans can’t even think of beginning to invest for the future. So it’s no surprise to find that about half (49 percent) of non-retired adults don’t believe they’ll be financially prepared to retire when their career ends.

Why aren’t existing financial wellness programs helping? Because too often there’s a mindset of checking the box instead of getting at the habits preventing employees from gaining and maintaining real financial wellness. If all we need to do is help employees manage their debt, we’ll never address the underlying issues causing widespread money stress: the wrong behaviors around debt and savings.

Related: 5 steps to a successful financial wellness plan

To get the right focus, it helps to view financial wellness the same way you would physical fitness. To get in shape, having a gym membership, world-class equipment, a library of fitness books and even elite coaching are not enough to get the job done. All of those things are great, but none are as essential as changing daily habits toward healthy eating and exercise.

Financial wellness is the same! Great options like tools, apps, investment advice, or 401(k)s may do a lot of good—but only after employees have learned how to leave behind bad habits and replace them with positive behaviors around money.

One-on-one meetings

One popular approach to financial wellness is the offer of one-time or annual face-to-face meetings with a financial advisor. There’s just one problem with this as a blanket solution—it addresses an issue (how to invest wisely) that many employees simply aren’t ready to jump into yet. And it ignores what they’re really going through with debt and emergencies. Not to mention it’s hard to scale to large workforces—the time and logistics alone require a large step from participants that are busy and scared to death.

From the snapshot we saw of the typical worker’s wallet, most aren’t even budgeting well. So how many are going to show up for a meeting to plan new investments for retirement? This well-intentioned idea misses the mark. Retirement is indeed a key part of financial wellness, but the only way to help get employees on track for the end of their career is to help them address the basics of emergency savings and debt elimination.

Tools and apps

Many financial wellness programs offer tools designed to help employees in key areas: budgeting, mortgage calculators and investment calculators. While these are all essential pieces of the wellness puzzle, they must be paired with crystal-clear teaching around wise spending, getting out of debt and having enough savings and insurance in place to protect employees’ assets. Otherwise, they’re just curb appeal on a shack.

Apps are another popular angle of financial wellness that are sometimes driven more by hype than substance. For example, micro-investing apps are becoming a pretty popular form of investment. The concept allows users to sync with a bank account to set up automatic savings transfers or invest small amounts of money in stocks. Some companies are even offering access to micro-investing as an employee benefit.

There’s a lot of hype, but what does it all add up to? The truth is the name says it all: micro-investing yields micro returns. It sets the bar far too low and could have the unintended effect of making employees underestimate how much they need to change their money habits in order to achieve excellent long-term results.

Auto-enrollment

An interesting approach many employers have taken to improving financial wellness has been automatic enrollment into company 401(k)s. The share of employers using this approach has doubled from 34 percent in 2007 to 68 percent today. As a result plenty of people who might not have otherwise enrolled have started saving for retirement! I applaud the efforts and intentions of any company that’s trying to help people save more for the future.

And while the intention of helping employees is great, auto-enrollment hasn’t actually helped most of those workers grow financially. In most cases, they’re worse off today than before they enrolled! Simply put, higher participation rates don’t bring about the kind of financial wellness behavior change you’re really looking for.

The big problem is employees placed in a retirement plan by default aren’t saving nearly enough there to ensure a healthy retirement. Most financial experts agree employees should be investing about 15 percent of their income as soon as possible to guarantee the best long-term outcomes—far higher than the level of investment for most auto-enrollment programs. Placing workers in a plan automatically can create a false sense of security where they think, “Well I’m investing up to the match. That ought to be enough!” But going up to the match is not nearly enough. In fact, if employers raised the default savings rate to what employees needed to save, most would opt out.

When you look holistically at what’s happening in the life of a typical auto-enrolled employee, it’s clear that just putting them into a 401(k) isn’t solving their real issue. Instead of helping employees get in better shape financially, research shows that auto-enrolled workers eventually go deeper into debt than peers who were free to opt in or out!

It’s an example of doing something smart (helping people save money) in an ineffective way—the net result for auto-enrolled workers was to go $2,000 in the wrong direction! That’s a bad outcome you can’t really view as making progress toward retirement. It would be like giving a drunk another drink and believing you’ve helped; it might cheer them up for a few minutes but it’s going to hurt them in the long run.

If you force broke people to save, you may feel as if you’ve checked the retirement box—but the money they saved won’t bring about a more disciplined lifestyle. Research shows that the real outcome is a slight uptick in savings that’s more than canceled by borrowing. If debt is increasing side by side with “savings,” you’re not really progressing. You have to solve the real problem.

Not surprisingly, when people are put into an investment by default they’ll see it the wrong way—in this case, they’ll say yes to a payroll deduction with a company match, believing they can “set it and forget it.” But they’ll often remove the same money they were “investing” back out in the form of loans, defeating the purpose of the benefit.

To avoid this employees need to understand the real reason for investing, which is to save money and let it grow for the future. Auto-enrollment has given many companies a false sense that they’ve finished the job of helping workers prepare for retirement. But it’s another example of a financial wellness standby that paints an incomplete picture for both companies and workers. Retirement plans are great but they only work as they should when paired with the right information as well as sharply focused coaching on better financial behavior.

What we should be doing

In all of the above approaches, we see attempts to help employees with one aspect or another of their finances—and they’re all hitting on legitimate issues. But even with all of these efforts in place, we’ll never see any powerful and long-lasting impact on financial wellness until employees are first convinced to make several key behavior changes.

The winning approach is a program that changes behaviors. To do that, a financial wellness program must:

  • Help employees to think differently about money. That means seeing it as a long-term wealth-building tool instead of something that comes and goes like the wind.
  • Change their view of budgeting. Take budgeting from something that cramps their style to something that gives them permission to spend.
  • Be intentional and inspirational. Real behavior change must be gradual and built around goals, so the best programs will outline simple and realistic action steps that get people moving with their money.
  • Provide a personal touch. Most people won’t be able to go it alone in any kind of big life change. That’s true of losing weight, quitting smoking or getting out of debt and building wealth. Find a program that allows employees to keep an eye on their progress and measure success.
  • Teach with authority. A great financial wellness program should include powerful teaching from experts who share their learning with authority and warmth. And if the employee’s spouse can get access to the same materials, it could make all the difference in their financial journey!
  • Deliver big and measurable results. Simply handing employees a plan they may or may not implement won’t change their core behaviors. Your employees need a program that really shows results around debt eliminated and dollars saved as they progress. A reporting system can even help you prove and share ROI with stakeholders.

Such programs exist, but you have to be intentional about looking for them—not just solutions that simply check a box. It’s worth every penny of benefits money you spend, not to mention ways in which such a program ultimately winds up contributing back to the company bottom line.

After decades of insufficient programs and dangerous retirement outcomes, it’s time employees get the foundational behavior change they need in their financial wellness program so they can get on track to retire with dignity!


Brian Hamilton is vice president of SmartDollar, Ramsey Solutions’ financial wellness program.