Texans take their barbecue seriously, and The Original Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q takes the financial welfare of its employees seriously. This is why the 27-year-old business, which has three locations in San Antonio, wanted to make a difference in the lives of its 134 employees and their finances.

About two years ago, the restaurant’s president, Mike Barker, started offering Dave Ramsey’s SmartDollar program, a financial wellness program that helps people learn the basics of money, including how to budget, how to set aside funds in an emergency account and how to pay down debt.

“We decided to offer this program to help them figure out where their money is going; help them make a budget,” says Sandra Devol, Rudy’s human resources director. “Most of our team members didn’t know how to make a budget. They were living paycheck to paycheck. They had payday loans. We paid a great wage so there was no reason they were still living that way. We wanted to educate them.”

Many of Rudy’s employees have been with the company for 14 years or longer, and they all make an hourly wage, which makes financial assistance and education all the more important.

In fact, Rudy’s took the SmartDollar program one step further than most companies that offer it — it makes it mandatory for all employees to participate, which means it has nearly 100% participation in the program.

The program was not well received at first, Devol says, because people have a hard time talking about their finances, but as the program progressed she has seen a big difference in employees’ financial behaviors. It is all about taking baby steps to make a difference overall.

Dave Ramsey’s seven baby steps are: get a $1,000 beginner emergency fund; pay off all debt except for your home; build your emergency fund up to three to six months of expenses; invest 15% of your household income into Roth IRAs and pre-tax retirement plans; start a college fund for your kids; pay off your home early; build wealth and give.

When Rudy’s first rolled out the program, the company’s owner raffled off $1,000, which would be split between four of the restaurant’s team members who were actively participating in the program by budgeting or actively paying down their debt.

The company offers other incentives throughout the year to keep employees interested and on track, she says. It offers back to school cash to help people buy clothes or supplies for school, cash for Christmas and scholarships “so they know that if they’re engaged in this program they’ll get more hours and money from the company,” Devol says.

And although employees weren’t excited about the program at the beginning, they have started opening up about their personal financial issues as part of the program. They talk about their personal development and what steps of the program they are in and how they can help each other get better.

“There are still team members struggling to make budgets, but other team members will help them out,” she says. “They are more open to discuss where they are at with each other and with the company and with the president and vice president. There’s no judgment. We want to serve them because it is part of our core values.”

Facing financial fears

Brian Hamilton, vice president of SmartDollar, says that the three biggest emotions around money are fear, shame and cynicism. The approach Dave Ramsey and other financial coaches use is to help people get past the fear, shame and guilt and realize that anybody can get a better handle on their financial lives.

Devol says that when Rudy’s first launched the program she and other administrators stood up and talked about their own financial struggles, saying that “we are all in the same journey together.”

Rudy’s also offers Dave Ramsey’s EntreLeadership program, which is an online coaching program for small business owners and entrepreneurs to help them learn to grow themselves, their teams and their profits, and Financial Peace, which teaches the same financial principles as Dave Ramsey’s other programs but backed with Christian biblical teachings. Rudy’s offers Financial Peace in both English and Spanish.

Hamilton says that Rudy’s is the perfect-sized company to offer these financial wellness programs because it isn’t so big that it can’t organize classes around its employees’ varied schedules. The program is offered at all three Rudy’s locations in Texas.

“As companies get larger, some of those logistical challenges are more problematic,” Hamilton says, noting SmartDollar is a good fit because the program can work well in a classroom as well as online.

Rudy’s does offer the program in a classroom setting and the company’s scheduling department makes sure that all employees can make a class “because it is so important to us,” Devol says.

So how successful has the program been?

Hamilton says that the 127 Rudy’s employees who have engaged in the SmartDollar program have paid off $522,000 in debt and saved $568,000 over two years.

“In financial wellness we see a lot of financial stress come to work with people, which leads to productivity drop offs, absenteeism and higher medical costs,” Hamilton says.

Along with financial wellness, Rudy’s offers a 401(k) plan and a wellness program for healthy eating.

“Mr. Barker has said that we as an organization, we might sell barbecue but we are in the business of developing our people and the barbecue is going to sell itself,” Devol says. “Without developing our people, we are not serving anyone.”

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