Technology alone not enough in financial wellness

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Although companies have embraced financial wellness programs in recent years as a way to help employees improve their financial health, improvements in this area remain stagnant because of poor investment market performance and slow economic growth.

Financial Finesse, a leader in the financial wellness space, said in its 2015 Year in Review that employee engagement is integral to improving their overall financial health.

Cynthia Meyer, resident financial planner at Financial Finesse and one of the authors of the Year in Review, said that her team drilled down into the data to see why financial wellness backslid a bit from 2014 to 2015. This was the first year Financial Finesse had enough data to determine if individuals had repeated interactions with their employers’ financial wellness programs.

“The only areas of significant improvement were people who were actively engaging in their financial wellness program,” she says, particularly those who spoke to someone regularly, either on the phone or in person. “If they had five interactions over the course of a year, their numbers were so much better.”

Of the employees who participated in the financial wellness program, repeat users scored 20% better than employees who only attended one workshop or logged into the financial learning center one time.

Of those who interacted with a certified financial planner five or more times during the year, 80% had a handle on their cash flow compared to 66% of online-only users; 72% had an emergency fund, compared to 50% of online-only users; 98% contributed to their retirement plan, compared to 89% of online-only users; and 48% felt they were on track for retirement, compared to only 21% of online-only users.

“While financial technology is certainly helpful, our research suggests technology alone is not enough,” the report said. “Worried employees make more progress when they talk to a real person.”

Companies that take a multi-channel approach, meaning they offer employees the opportunity to engage with a financial planner online, over the telephone or in person, do a better job of overcoming employee stagnation in financial wellness, the report added.

“It seems that personal interaction is what is helping people get over that hump of debt and cash flow problems that so many American employees are experiencing,” Meyer says, “but the numbers on debt and cash flow are still depressing.”

Financial Finesse works with Fortune 1000 companies. “We’re not looking at self-employed people or people who make minimum wage,” she says. That’s why it makes it that much more disturbing to her that half of those surveyed don’t have an emergency fund.

“One-quarter of those 65 and older, who are within five years of retirement, don’t have an emergency fund,” she says.

Financial Finesse’s research found that of individuals who make $100,000 or below a year, only half pay off their credit card bill every month.

Debt seems to be hurting African American and Latino employees the most, she says. Seventy-five percent of African American employees and 66% of Latino employees who were surveyed said that getting out of debt is a top priority.

“Debt is a problem for everybody,” Meyer says. “It is not limited to certain demographics.”

So what can employers do to help move the needle on financial wellness at their companies? The first thing is to understand that a technology-only solution is not enough. It is only going to get employees so far before they get bogged down, she says. Companies need to think of how they can incorporate one-on-one guidance into their financial wellness or retirement programs.

Financial education is another way employers can get more involved. They can hold workshops about tackling student loan debt or transitioning to retirement. The key is to survey employees about what they need help with and then offer educational content that is really specific and targeted to the employees at each location.

“Technology is like a scale. We can step on the scale but it is not going to tell you to do 100 pushups or give you strategies about how to handle desserts at a birthday party,” Meyer says.

When the stock market starts to fall, people inevitably want to speak to a real person about what they should do because they feel nervous, she says.

Financial Finesse has seen an uptick in the number of help line calls it receives about market volatility because it is the first time many people have seen their 401(k) statements go down in a while. Many want to know what they should be doing.

Women are the heaviest users of financial wellness programs, in large part because there is still a gender gap in terms of financial wellness, education and knowledge, Meyer says.

“Women have to save at least 25% more than men to keep up with their longer lifespans,” she said.

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Financial wellness Financial stress HR Technology Retirement readiness Retirement education Retirement benefits Retirement planning