Author’s note: the following post is from our CEO, Ben Pitts.

I’ve spent the last two years speaking with CFOs, Directors of Total Rewards, and other benefits executives about the issue of financial wellness. Together, the founders of MFA have attended industry conferences, participated in expert panels, and have met with consultants, employee health & wellness companies, financial services companies, and start-ups. When it comes to financial wellness, the consensus was clear across the board: employees need help.

The problem is that no one agrees on what “financial wellness” really is.

Even once an organization has decided that financial wellness should be a priority, a number of important program design questions remain.

  • What are the goals and objectives of such a program?
  • Should a company build the program internally or work with a vendor or group of vendors to deliver it?
  • What sorts of issues should the program cover: Budgeting? Retirement? Health savings? Stock options?
  • How should the program be delivered?

The questions are endless, and everyone has an opinion.

Well, I’ve got an opinion as well. I believe that in order to solve this issue, we need to address the real problem, which is unique to each employee’s life and unique to his or her psychology and situation. The problem to be solved is not “how to create a great benefit offering,” but rather “how to help people with their financial situations on an individual level.”

As a team of experienced personal financial planners, we naturally look to understand questions like “what keeps you up at night?” and “what are you looking to accomplish in our discussion today?” But, I’ve realized that all of these interview questions really circle around one core issue: what is the #1 life or financial decision you are thinking about right now?

Having recognized that core concern, we’ve ensured that when we interact with employees, that is always the first question we ask. While some employees, afraid to expose their insecurities, will simply smile and respond with perfunctory answers like “oh, I’m fine” or “I don’t have any major financial decisions ahead of me,” most employees, if asked one-on-one, will answer that question directly and honestly.

So, with that, I’d like to share with you the top 5 lessons we’ve learned from asking employees “what is the #1 financial concern you have right now?”

Lesson #1: Employees’ financial issues are as diverse as the employees in your company 

Here are just a handful of the answers that we received when we asked for employees’ #1 concern:

  • I just moved here from London and I’m trying to figure out the U.S. financial system while also making decisions about my assets and liabilities back home in the U.K.
  • This is my first job. I want to make the smartest decisions possible but can’t do it on my own.
  • Should I consolidate my student loans?
  • My wife and I had a foreclosure on a house 6 years ago. We’re past that and are trying to rebuild.
  • I think I need a budget but have never been successful with one. I need help making sense of it because I’m probably behind on retirement savings.
  • I’m just not sure why my company sells my restricted stock units on the day of vesting. Can you explain that to me?
  • I moved here from Atlanta, but I still own a condo there. Should I sell it or keep it?
  • Should I refinance my home to a 15-year mortgage?
  • Should I contribute to a Roth or a Traditional 401(k)?

So what’s the takeaway?

First, financial concerns and questions are so diverse that tackling these topics demands a personalized approach. Second, these issues are so complex and specific that it requires a broad understanding of an individual’s situation. Lastly, the issues are often overlapping, which requires an expert’s attention to provide a credible and comforting answer (and an appropriate prioritization of goals). Certainly, technology can answer some of these questions, but personalized service from a compassionate, emotionally intelligent human is the only way to support the holistic financial life of your employees.

Lesson #2: Employees need help making sense of the bigger picture 

Making sense of personal finance is like trying to piece together a puzzle – one that is highly complex and high-stakes. Consider a single employee that is 28 years old. She has student loans, credit card debt, a 401(k) plan, a Health Savings Account, a 6-month old baby, and she dreams of buying a home someday. She’s a millennial, which might suggest that paying off student loans is her #1 priority. However, her goals and preferences may be at odds with her student loans, which are at a relatively reasonable (or at least comfortable) 5% interest rate. Or, she may have walked in and told us that paying for her baby’s college is her priority.

Ultimately, what she needs is to consider the totality of her financial situation, preferences, goals, and options to then make the smartest financial decision. While simple calculations often provide good insight into a single decision (such as student loan repayment), the big picture allows employees to consider tradeoffs fully and to make the decision that is truly right for them. The more complex the situation, the more tradeoffs have to be considered, and financial complexity typically intensifies with age.

Lesson #3: Timing matters, and financial resources should be available at all times

Similar to stopping by for a check-up with a general physician, most people seek out financial resources either (1) once every few months for regular maintenance, or (2) when everything is falling apart.

During numerous sit-down meetings with employees, we hear that people are wrestling with specific and timely issues that threaten both their peace of mind and their financial well-being. These issues span the gamut from a recent move (internationally or across the country) to the desire to buy a new home, from 401(k) decisions to employee benefits and stock options.

Life is dynamic, and new financial challenges and opportunities can crop up anywhere at any time. That’s why it is so critical for employees to know about the financial resources that are available to them (in advance) and for those financial resources to be accessible at all times.

Lesson #4: From high to low in the employee hierarchy, no one is immune to financial concerns

Though it’d be comforting to imagine that financial challenges subside as employees advance in their career, our experience has taught us quite the opposite. Indeed, just about everyone – from entry-level employee to C-suite executive – carries with them important questions and concerns regarding financial wellness. Over the years, we have worked with people at all points in life, with various backgrounds and varying degrees of financial sophistication. One moment we may sit down with a recent college grad who has just started his first job and needs to know “how to get started financially,” and the next moment we may be exploring sophisticated stock options and tax strategies with a fairly senior employee who plans to retire in the next 5 years.

Financial knowledge and financial fitness are in no way standardized, and any program that attempts to make sweeping generalizations (or offer a mechanized approach) is undoubtedly letting real people – with real challenges – fall through the cracks. Successful financial well-being programs should provide the flexibility to address employee concerns and challenges, and should be able to accommodate an employee at any point in the financial life cycle.

Lesson #5: Regardless of accumulated wealth, everyone needs financial preparation

Whether you’re managing considerable accumulated wealth or are working to rebuild your savings from scratch, experience has taught us that everyone – from millionaires to modest earners – experiences similar uncertainties, and doubts his or her preparedness to make the right financial decisions moving forward.

In the past, we have worked with people who have experienced devastating foreclosures and bankruptcies and are on the path to rebuilding their well-being. We’ve also worked with people who are multi-millionaires and who struggle to see a strategy for protecting and growing the wealth that they’ve accumulated over the years. The point is that regardless of what your bank statement says to you each month, the overall process for achieving financial well-being is very much the same – though the particular tactics are tailored to each person’s unique situation.

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