Financial Wellness Programs (FWPs): Tips, Trends, Tools, and Tactics

Financial wellness is an increasingly hot topic in today’s workplace. More than ever, employees are looking to their employer as a partner in their own financial wellness. Employees expect and look forward to resources to help protect their financial well-being. They’re eager for solutions to help equip and empower them going forward. 

Gone are the days when companies simply issued a 401(k) enrollment brochure and considered things buttoned up. In order to attract and maintain the strongest workforce, top employers must consider how best to align their benefit strategies with financial wellness products.

Lockton leverages RFP360 for a streamlined RFP and RFI process. So as RFP360’s Financial Services vertical leader, it was my pleasure to sit down with Donn Hess, who is the Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Lockton. Donn shared his expert insights on the financial wellness marketplace. Explore the trends, tactics, keys and best practices for bringing financial wellness to life in your organization.

What is financial wellness?

The term “financial wellness” is a broad one, and nearly every player in the marketplace defines it a bit differently. Being “financially well” is subjective, and multifaceted. Perspective is everything when it comes to defining financial wellness.

For some employees, financial wellness could mean being debt free, or having enough money in savings to cover unexpected expenses. Others may consider financial wellness as the ability to retire on their own timeline and have a healthy nest egg for the future. 

Still others view financial wellness as feeling equipped to manage day-to-day finances and navigate expenses. Confidence in budgeting, plus the ability to play well in the short-term, could mean financial wellness too.

So, with numerous definitions possible, Donn and his team at Lockton lean away from the one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, it’s wise to begin by uncovering what financial wellness means, really. As Donn explains,

“A big part of what we do at Lockton as consultants is to sit down with our clients before we ever talk about a specific product or a service or a vendor. We just spend some time saying, ‘What is financial wellness to your organization? What does it mean to you?’” 

For most organizations, Donn explains, the ideal financial wellness solution unites a number of key tools in the marketplace. Products include managed account services, target-date funds and more. The right solution comes to life when uniting the right elements.

Employee Financial Wellness Program

Financial wellness tools: Navigating the marketplace

Just as the definition of financial wellness has nuance, so do financial wellness solutions. Donn segments the financial wellness marketplace into two broadly defined categories: educational services and tools. 

“Education is content that helps employees or individuals learn more about financial wellness topics. It’s either very, very broad, or it’s very, very focused. Then the tools tend to be interactive techniques. A lot of times they’re websites, where people can input data or aggregate accounts for more personalized look at a particular financial wellness topic. 

“But we think, at Lockton, a really solid financial wellness program is one that incorporates all of those things. And as a result, a lot of times there’s no single provider that can fill the bill completely. A lot of times a real financial wellness program has elements of all those things.”

So if the goal is identifying the ideal solution to financial wellness, the process can begin by defining an organization’s unique goals — and then assembling the right puzzle pieces to give employees just what they need. Pulling levers from both educational services and tools is key. 

It can help to think of the financial wellness marketplace as a menu: choose from a variety of elements to build a thorough and comprehensive program. Combined, the right mix can address employees’ unique needs.

Ultimately, financial wellness is both an art and a science. A successful program unites goals with tactics, keeping ultimate outcomes in mind.

Financial wellness product trends — and what solutions are market disruptors

In the rapidly-changing financial wellness landscape, keeping a finger on the pulse of what is new matters. From a product perspective, Donn notes the wide variety of new entrants, from traditional record keepers to startups. One quickly-expanding arena? The influx of student loan match  providers. Donn explains,

“A great example has been the influx of student loan solution providers. And it was disruptive in the marketplace when these providers came in and said, ‘Hey, look, you’ve got folks who can’t contribute to their retirement plan. Why don’t you use our approach?’ 

One concept that is gaining rapid traction capitalizes on the corporate tradition of matching funds — but inverts the model to address the national student loan debt crisis. Student loan debt in the U.S. has more than doubled in the last decade, climbing quickly to $1.5 trillion. This presents modern employees with a difficult challenge: should you invest your earnings to save for retirement, or focus directly on paying down student loan debt? 

New solution providers pair 401(k) matches with student loan debt payoff. Employers can make matching contributions to 401(k)s while their employees pay off their student loans. Donn continues,

“To the extent that these people are diverting their funds to pay down a student loan, you could match that in the retirement plan and get the best of both worlds. That was disruptive because a lot of the record-keeping providers really weren’t prepared from a compliance point of view, or even from a systems point of view, to support that kind of thinking. So, it really has a lot of folks in the industry taking a different look at how we might be able to help people in a broader, more comprehensive way.” 

“Over time, you’re starting to see record keepers find a student loan provider, you’re also seeing it on the health savings account side where record keepers and HSA providers are starting to partner. It starts out disruptive, with organizations determining how they can play in this marketplace, but it becomes complementary over time when both employers and employees see the value of having a financial discussion that’s more inclusive. It’s not just retirement, it’s not just student loans, it’s not just health savings accounts — but it’s an overall experience that helps someone think, ‘I’ve got finite dollars, how do I allocate them over all these different needs?’”

Strategies to make the most of the financial wellness marketplace

With the influx of players in the financial wellness realm, where do you start? Donn shares Lockton’s protocol — and step one is a great RFI:

“We do an RFI where we reach out to the marketplace and we ask a series of questions about their capabilities. And we try to keep it reasonably high level. What we’re after with that RFI is to identify, in a broad way, where is this particular provider playing? What subjects do they cover? Do they take an advisory or an educational point of view? And how do they deliver those capabilities — with a human agent, digitally, through an educational system?” 

Also central to crafting a strong financial wellness program is broad industry awareness. Donn and his Lockton team recommend doing quite a bit of informal work as well, keeping up on the industry and knowing who’s who among financial wellness service providers. From attending conferences to direct conversations when a potential vendor reaches out, Donn recommends a simple interview process.

“We’ll sit down with them and listen to their story, trying to understand where their solutions fit in the bigger picture. Are they offering a product or a tool? Will they deliver education, or something more holistic than that? And then once we’ve determined that it will make sense for a broader array of clients, we put shift into an RFI and publish the results of that out to our service teams so they’ve got a way to see the marketplace and the clients.”

Financial wellness

Financial wellness best practices: Your due diligence

So, once you’ve received RFIs and identified the key contenders to build a financial wellness program, what due diligence should take place? Here’s what to keep top of mind, and key focus areas as you determine the answers.

1. What’s the partner’s approach to security and data protection?

In any industry offering finance-driven technology solutions, data privacy, security and protection can be a major concern. And establishing smart practices surrounding data security is key to building a financial wellness program the employees can engage in with full confidence and trust. 

The right answer is one of balance, Donn says. How much data does an employee need to release in order for a solution to be effective? And the more data that’s called for, the more security due diligence matters on the front end. As Donn shares,

“As we look at the different financial wellness providers, a big question is this: how much of the individual employee’s confidential or protected data needs to be exchanged in order to deliver that service? The greater quantity of data necessary, the deeper dive you have to take with that particular provider — and the more you need to invest in a strong contract that protects all parties involved.” 

2. What’s the organization’s track record, business model and longevity?

There’s nothing wrong with selecting “the new kid on the block” as a partner for your financial wellness program. The right solution provider just might be new to the marketplace! But it’s smart to do your due diligence and investigate the partner’s business model. Evaluating risk factors can set the stage for a smoother relationship in the future. As Donn says,

“It’s smart to make sure we understand if this is a long term player in the industry. Is this product their only product line, or do they have a diverse revenue stream? We look at how fast their business is growing, and related things for us to get a sense of the longevity of the product or the service provider.”

3. What is the provider’s financial agreement and fee structure?

The due diligence process is incomplete without a deep dive into the potential provider’s fee structure. How fees change hands is a crucial element to explore. It’s all an important and meaningful part of fiduciary best practices, and making sure prudent oversight is happening across the process. Donn shares,

“When it comes into the space of financial wellness, you want to make sure that you’ve done your due diligence to make sure that the product is appropriate. You also want to make sure that the fees for the product are reasonable. And you need to be really sensitive of who’s paying those fees. Are the fees coming out of plan assets? Or from the individual employee’s decision-making process?”

Financial wellness: Tying it together for a smooth solution

In navigating towards a financial wellness program, a little patience goes a long way. Throughout the process, keep those who will ultimately benefit from the solution at heart. What’s the problem you’re aiming to solve . . . and who will thrive when you solve it?

As Donn explains,

“When we talk about looking for a financial wellness provider, people are really quick to either jump directly to a particular provider or jump to a particular solution. But I think the successful RFP process really begins with introspection. It’s a matter of looking at the employee demographics, looking at where individuals are struggling and having challenges and creating a framework based on that. You know, what’s the problem you’re trying to solve? When you invest a little bit of time upfront, you make sure to know exactly what you’re after.”

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