Why Counter Culture Coffee brewed up a financial education plan

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Since Brett Smith started Counter Culture Coffee 22 years ago in Durham, N.C., the business has grown to 110 employees in 14 different markets across the country, including Atlanta, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle.

As the wholesale coffee company has grown, it has offered numerous benefits to help attract and retain great employees, including paying 90% of employee medical benefits, offering a 401(k) matching contribution and providing a membership to a health club.

The one benefit that went underutilized was the 401(k) plan. That concerned Smith, who felt the 100% match on the employee’s first 3% contribution and 50% match from 3-5% employee contribution was free money all employees should be taking advantage of. Even after taking employees aside to talk about the benefit, participation rates remained low.

Smith decided to do something about it. In 2016, he contacted an old friend from graduate school who had started a financial wellness company called BrightDime.

BrightDime aims to change employee financial behavior through budget help and coaching, says the firm’s CEO, David Stedman.

“We are trying to make financial wellness a lifelong journey and the important way to make that a lifelong journey is to get people to take action and sustain that action,” Stedman says. BrightDime’s platform can create a budget for users and show them where they are spending their money. It gets participants started on the pillars of financial wellness and allows them to track their own goals.

One of BrightDime’s unique coaching features is a chat window in each user’s platform; when a user has a financial question, the BrightDime coach can access the employee’s account information to decide the best way to answer their inquiry. Because the coaches have access to the user’s personal information on the platform, they don’t have to ask about their financial background or net worth.

“I can coach them appropriately,” Stedman says.

Counter Culture Coffee has been working with BrightDime for just over a year and is already seeing results. Since Counter Culture Coffee adopted the program, it has achieved 55% engagement from its employees. In November, which is the latest month the company has statistics for, 18% of the company’s engaged employees had reduced their debt, and 36% said they saved more than they spent.

Importantly, the company also is getting higher participation in its 401(k) plan.

“I feel like our participation rate is extremely high,” Smith says. “I think [the BrightDime program] has helped people who don’t have a financial background connect the dots. From our perspective, we are pleased it’s part of the portfolio we offer our employees. We offered a lot in the past that fell completely flat, or clearly people didn’t need it or appreciate it like we thought they might.”

Smith says that he could never figure out why people wouldn’t participate in the 401(k), even with the company’s matching contribution, but “part of it was not understanding it, or maybe some people feel like even though there is matching, they couldn’t afford it. I tried to understand what their real financial needs were. Budgeting can help with that. Understanding what expenses are and what that needs. It is creating bullseyes out there, something to work toward.”

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Financial wellness Financial literacy Financial planning Financial stress Retirement education Retirement planning 401(k)