It’s the crisis no one is talking about. We see the signs, but we spend all of our time talking about the symptoms instead of the disease:
We hate saving for a rainy day – or even a sunny one. The average U.S. household saves about 5.9 percent of their income, lower than the 60-year average, which hovered close to 8.3 percent. It’s also nearly a third of the country’s high of 17 percent back in 1975.
We still love debt. Total American household debt ticked up to more than $12.5 trillion at the end of last year, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. That’s an increase of $460 billion for the year – the largest in nearly 10 years and perilously close to pre-recession levels.
We’re not ready to retire. While the median working couple has saved only about $5,000 for retirement, only one in three families has saved anything at all.
We read stories about all of these alarming statistics – and more – almost every day, but we rarely hear anyone talk about the underlying problem: a startling lack of employee understanding of the most basic economic principles.
Whether it’s calculating compound interest, defining diversification or explaining revolving credit, Americans are woefully behind the curve when it comes to basic financial concepts. A recent global survey ranked the United States a middling 14th in the world in financial literacy, with 57 percent passing a basic proficiency test.
That growing financial illiteracy leads to an increasingly distracted – and frankly, stressed out – workforce. This, in turn, leads to more workplace accidents, more doctor visits, and a greater incidence of presenteeism, all of which cost employers thousands of dollars every year.
In recent years, employers have not only acknowledged these issues, but most have embraced potential solutions, with roughly two-thirds offering some kind of financial wellness program to employees. While some aspects may overlap, there are essentially five types for employers to consider.
1. Financial education
Education is the bedrock that everything else in the financial wellness market is built on. So it’s critical everyone agrees on the actual definition of what financial wellness is.
For years, employers have targeted their financial education efforts on the retirement side of the equation, filtered through the prism of the 401(k). And that’s the problem.
According to a just-published PwC employee wellness survey, “Across all generations…financial wellness means freedom from financial stress and debt, enjoying life, and being prepared for emergencies. Surprisingly, very few employees of any age define financial wellness in terms of retirement, which has historically been the focus of most employer financial education programs.”
In fact, according to the survey, employees of all age groups are more worried about saving for emergency expenses than anything else. And with good reason: Less than 18 percent of Americans have a three-to-five-month emergency fund established.
When it comes to financial education, it is increasingly critical that organizations focus on more than a single component. Broadly speaking, most programs focus on saving, investments, insurance, and spending. More specifically, successful education programs are centered on retiree health care and Medicare education, investment management and asset allocation instruction, and retirement financial planning.
2. Cash flow management and budgeting platforms
While financial education is most effective in person, these digital platforms can be just as effective in other ways, such as providing online money management tools, aggregating visibility to all of your accounts in one place and offering retirement or savings calculators.
Digital platforms are also critical in making a much broader spectrum of financial advice available to employees.
Perhaps most importantly, these platforms help break down any digital literacy barriers that may exist, providing needed assistance to segments of the population that have been historically underserved by the financial benefit offerings, lower-income or older employees for example.
3. Financial coaching
As opposed to an advisor or planner, a financial coach is someone more focused on the basics of finances while addressing financial habits.
Coaching is focused more on education and empowerment and less on long-term planning or more complicated investment strategies. These professionals seek to shape sustainable long-term financial behavior by instituting more responsible short-term habits and behaviors in one-on-one coaching sessions.
Their process usually begins with a financial assessment, followed by the crafting of a unique financial plan to suit the needs of the employee. Ongoing coaching helps the employee stick to the plan and make adjustments as needed.
4. Loan products
Student loans consistently rank as among the top financial concerns for employees – and with good reason: Total student loan debt now sits over $1 trillion in the United States.
This burden is particularly acute for younger employees just entering the workforce. Loan products such as student loan benefits, as one example, help ease this burden.
In short, these products can incorporate employer student loan contributions, employ refinancing options, often with an educational component.
5. Investment advisors
Investment advisors are typically financial coaches with a few certifications behind their names. As such, they can help counsel employees who already have a layer of financial wellness under the belt.
These employees, for example, might already have an established emergency fund, little to no consumer debt, and manageable loan and mortgage payments.
Advisors would work with these employees to explore possible insurance products, investment strategies and a retirement design that goes well beyond a defined contribution plan.
There’s more to financial wellness than signing a deal
Financial wellness programs are more than just a popular employee benefit.
They’re hugely popular ways to transform employees into more productive workers and more responsible consumers. But there’s more to it than signing a deal with the first vendor you see.
It’s essential that employers target the topics their employees are worried about, establish a dedicated financial wellness budget, and tailor the programs to specific age groups.
The views of the author of this article do not necessarily represent the views of Gradifi.