Alexander Assaley learned very early on about the importance of financial wellness.

Now a retirement planning specialist and the managing principal of the Bethesda, Md.-based agency AFS 401(k), at the age of 17 Assaley’s father passed away unexpectedly. He, too, had been a financial adviser, and his sudden absence left the stricken family with new financial hurdles and anxieties.

“My dad had always managed my family’s finances, so while it was a hard time emotionally, it was also very difficult for us financially,” he recalls. “We quickly learned how difficult it was to manage our financial lives.”

Alexander Assaley
Photo: Jonathan Thorpe

Assaley also soon learned that these types of money management challenges were widespread. “In just a few short years,” he says, “I came to understand first hand many of the financial struggles that most working Americans deal with on a daily basis, including how to budget, how to plan for emergencies and how to prepare for your long-term future.”

The chief lesson, reinforced later through his professional work with thousands of people, was that the majority of Americans don’t have the level of financial literacy that they need to make better choices. Moreover, they also don’t know how to get the education they need to improve their financial health.

Which brings us to the present, and Assaley and his firm’s efforts to bridge the knowledge gap through the use of technology. In January of this year, AFS 401(k) launched MoneyNav, an online platform where the firm’s clients and their employees can find reliable answers to their most pressing retirement and financial questions.

The project also netted AFS 401(k) an EBA/EBN Dig|Benefits Technology Innovator Award for innovation in the field of employee benefits technology.

MoneyNav was designed to span all demographics and provide tools to meet a wide range of preferences. The site includes blogs, videos, webinar recordings, online calculators, social media integration, worksheets for budgeting and other resources.

“So, whether you’re a 25 year-old millennial that is very adept at social media and spends a lot of time looking at Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, or a 60-yr.old baby boomer that enjoys reading blogs or watching videos after dinner,” Assaley says MoneyNav provides content that suits their life styles and habits.

A financially stressed workforce

The market, it would seem, is primed for this type of offering.

While two-thirds of employers offer financial education to help their employees manage their personal finances, according to a new report from the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, “Nearly half of [them] rate their workforce as only a little bit or not at all financially savvy,” says Julie Stich, a certified employee benefits (CEBS) specialist and the director of research at IFEBP. “Employers are also reporting more financial challenges among employees today than five years ago,” she adds, “and are seeing these challenges reflected in the day-to-day operations of their workplace.”

Per the report, four out of five employers say that personal financial pressures affect their employees’ job performance, resulting in increased in stress, inability to focus, absenteeism and tardiness. Specific stressors include struggles with debt, saving for retirement or their children’s’ education, covering basic living expenses and paying for medical expenses.

To help combat the issue, nearly half of organizations surveyed offer some form of financial education. Topics range from household budgeting and investing to insurance, identity theft and preretirement financial planning.

A holistic approach

FS 401(k) attempts to address all these needs through a holistic approach to retirement and financial wellness.

“Helping people create a sound retirement plan is critical,” Assaley notes, “but without helping them with their short-term financial challenges such as growing debt, a lack of emergency savings or a budget deficit, it’s [nearly impossible] to help someone improve his financial life. The guidance and the counsel we provide for a retirement account becomes much less relevant, if we’re not looking holistically at the entire financial picture.”

Most working Americans, he concludes, need simple, straightforward advice that encompasses all of their financial doings. To provide it, AFS 401(k) works with each client to create a customized financial wellness program. A small firm with four advisers on staff, it takes a team-oriented approach that utilizes all of their skillsets.

“We take a comprehensive approach to retirement plan consulting,” Assaley says, “and try to understand what scope of services is right for each client.”

The agency’s client base covers small to mid-size companies and includes employers with anywhere from around 100 to a few thousand employees. It provides its services through in-person education sessions and one-on-one counseling, but places a special emphasis on the use of digital media that can be readily tracked and scaled. This gives the firm more insight into what kind of tools and information employees are looking for and how best to engage them.

“We’ve spent the last year testing MoneyNav [against] a lot of the assumptions and theories we have from meeting with employees and talking to them about their benefits and goals,” Assaley says.
AFS 401(k) then used that input to build out the platform. Today it serves as the hub of its clients’ financial wellness programs. Educational content is structure like a curriculum.

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“We have multiple generations in our workplace today with varying interests."

For example, Assaley says, “If I’m an employee and I want information about managing my day-to-day finances, there is a section on MoneyNav about budgeting [organized] by topics such as how to [create and manage] a budget, reduce debt and save for emergencies.” Employees are then guided through a series of steps and actions items for each topic.

Other sections may cover subjects like retirement planning and are organized by topic in a similar manner. The content is delivered through a variety of mediums, so for instance there may be a blog post with a corresponding video or a tool like an interactive worksheet. Data inputted into the worksheet can be viewed by the AFS 401(k) advisors, who can then follow up one-on-one with the employee who provided the data.

One AFS 401(k) client that plans to make use of MoneyNav is the American Society of Hematology, which last year worked with the agency to conduct a budget challenge for its employees. Dennis Sawyers, a senior human resources consultant for the association, views the new web site as an extension of the holistic financial management services that AFS 401(k) offers.

“We have multiple generations in our workplace today with varying interests,” Sawyers notes. Some employees are “looking at retirement square in the face,” while others haven’t even purchased their first home. But budgeting, he points out, “is going to be an ongoing issue for everybody. AFS 401(k) has worked with us to establish a financial management curriculum that helps us meet the needs of the entire organization.”

Data analytics

Of particular value to organizations like ASH are MoneyNav’s data analytics features. These allow the agency to assess their clients’ employees’ financial goals and which financial topics are of greatest interest to them.

“Through surveys and the curriculum program, we’re able to provide data and reporting for our clients to help them understand the impact that we’re having on a global level,” Assaley says. “By the end of this year, we hope to be able to do that [for] specific clients. We’ll be able to say, ‘For your employees, these are the top initiatives they are working on and here is some of the progress we’re making.’”

This type of data pull goes “above and beyond” traditional retirement plan metrics. For years, 401(k) plan sponsors have focused on the participation rates and employee retirement readiness. “Where we’re headed now is being able to say to employers that in addition to long-term financial achievements, here are some of the short-term improvements that your employees are making when it comes to their financial picture,” Assaley explains. “These might include paying down student debt or reducing credit card debt.”

Such efforts, he notes, would create value for both employees and their employers, who benefit from having a financially fit workforce.

The three Fs

When developing MoneyNav, the AFS 401(k) advisers conferred with technical experts and worked with a design firm to build the platform. Assaley was particularly intrigued by the behavior-altering methods espoused by Gabe Zichermann, an author, entrepreneur and gamification guru.

“The idea he subscribes to is that to really get people engaged, [an activity] has to include 1) friends, 2) feedback and 3) fun,” says Assaley. “You can apply that to almost anything . . . Facebook, sports, even an art class.”

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“We’ve seen that through this program we can engage people and help them develop better financial literacy."

Future buildouts of MoneyNav will be based on that approach. “The platform already provides feedback,” Assaley notes. “Our next goals are to integrate friends and fun.” For example, the firm is planning to include more financial wellness challenges as part of the financial education site’s program.

Assaley reports that client response has been enthusiastic so far and that within the first six weeks of its launch the site had over 5,000 unique visitors. “The instant interest and engagement has been exceedingly positive,” he maintains.

But he doesn’t expect MoneyNav to ever replace the face-to-face sit-downs and interactions that AFS 401(k)’s advisers have with their clients.

“We’ve seen that through this program we can engage people and help them develop better financial literacy,” Assaley says. “But it’s important to realize that, when it comes to financial and benefit planning, people are still looking for that human touch.”

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