The $900K difference: How one company made financial wellness work

CLEARWATER, Fla. — When real estate firm Bell Partners decided to survey its staff in 2016 to gauge how they were doing financially, the results were alarming.

More than half of its 1,300 employees said financial stress impacted their ability to concentrate on work. Only 37% said they understood the company’s 401(k) plan, and just 12% knew its match percentage. Others said they wanted help planning for retirement and managing debt.

“We found that our employees were not well informed on financial topics,” Paula Stop, director of benefits at Bell Partners, said Tuesday at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plan’s Health Benefits Conference and Expo. “And they were very stressed.”

The survey results prompted the company’s executive staff to support the rollout of the SmartDollar financial wellness program in February 2017.

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Created by financial expert Dave Ramsey, SmartDollar is designed to educate employees to take control of their money and get on track for retirement. Through a series of what SmartDollar dubs seven “baby steps,” the program aims to help participants change their behavior toward money and use their income to save and invest instead of paying consumer debt. It combines video tutorials, quizzes and a point system for rewards, along with email inspiration and reminders.

About 4,000 employers, including Costco, Kindred Healthcare, Sonic and M&T Bank, offer SmartDollar as a benefit for their employees.

“We wanted to implement something that would work for everybody,” Stop said.

See also: ADP to offer SmartDollar’s financial wellness program

The company worked to implement the program in a number of ways. Bell held lunch-and-learn seminars for employees on financial topics, including topics such as getting to know your 401(k) plan, taking control of finances, navigating investment choices, and becoming a homeowner.

To get employees enrolled — and then participate — in the program, Bell turned to a number of incentive programs, which included cash prizes and extra vacation days.

“It started out to just get people involved, then we wanted to track activities and participation,” Stop said. “[For the contests with prizes,] we got so many emails asking things like, ‘When will you announce the winner? Is it me?’ That made me feel like I got something right.”

Bell also ramped up communication efforts, informing employees about the SmartDollar program through multiple channels, including email, mailers to employees’ homes, a monthly benefits newsletter and posters around the office. They also made sure managers got involved and told employees about the new program.

“We can offer [employees] all these wonderful benefits, but if they don’t know about [them], don’t understand [them] or don’t know about them, we won’t get the buy-in,” Stop said.

The initiatives worked.

By the end of 2017, 34% of Bell’s employees — or 503 employees out of 1,500 — had enrolled in the financial wellness program. The workers collectively eliminated $259,034 worth of debt and added $412,877 in savings. By the end of 2018, participation climbed to 42%, and participants eliminated $433,193 worth of debt and added $469,372 in savings. Financial turnaround of the program’s 626 participants, so far, has reached $902,565.

Employees’ attitudes toward finances have improved, too. Fewer employees used the words “scared” or “confused” when talking about their finances; more used “confident” and “secure.”

Retirement expectations also saw a boost as a result of the SmartDollar program: When asked in December how much they were planning to increase their retirement contributions in the next two years, 13% of participants said 15% or more, up from 5% in May 2017. Meanwhile, there was a 16% decrease in 401(k) plan loans.

A growing number of employers are turning to financial wellness programs as a way to help employees combat high levels of debt, lackluster retirement savings and increasing stress about day-to-day expenses.

Roughly half of companies offer some type of financial advice — including resource materials or referrals, online assessment and advice tools, and group instruction and one-on-one advice with a financial counselor — according to the latest benefits report from the Society for Human Resource Management.

Still, employers often struggle with less-than-stellar participation rates.

For HR managers who are looking to implement a financial wellness program, Stop reiterated that a strong communication plan and incentives are key. Most important, though, is the understanding of why companies should offer these programs.

“As benefit professionals, we have an opportunity to change [employees’] outcomes, help them make important decisions and help them turn their life around,” Stop said.

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