Free vs. Paid Account

Financial Wellness Buyer’s Guide




Personal finance plays a critical role in people’s lives and overall well-being. Just think about how what you earn, spend and save is woven into all aspects of your life. Now consider the stress you experience when things go awry or you have to make a major decision that involves your finances.

You aren’t alone. In fact, the volume of Americans dealing with financial stress is enormous. Despite the recovery from the 2008 US recession, the average cost of living continues to outpace income growth.[EPI, 2016]


Worrisome stats:



Do not feel very confident about having enough money for a comfortable retirement
[EBRI, 2017]



Live paycheck to paycheck
[Career Builder 2016]



Carry revolving credit, with an average balance of $16,748 [Nerdwallet, 2016]



Don’t have any emergency savings [Bankrate, 2016]


On the bright side, technology has brought in a wave of “FinTech” tools, many of them free, to help people better manage their personal finances. In addition to these consumer facing resources, financial wellness solutions are also becoming increasingly available as an employee benefit through employers.

Why are employers getting involved?

Corporate health and wellness programs have measured stress levels for decades and almost always report that financial concerns are the number one source of stress. While it’s difficult to quantify, most believe there is a strong link between financial stress and impaired health or work performance. This concern, along with the widespread lack of retirement readiness, puts pressure on organizations to support their employees’ financial well-being.

Adding to employees’ financial stress is the shift from traditional benefit plans to more defined contribution options. The availability of HSA, 401(k), FSA, and others, leave employees a steep learning curve to understand the complexities of their benefits plans and how to allocate dollars to these products. With these factors becoming more lucent, employers are stepping up to help improve the financial wellness of their employees.

The hope in delivering these programs is that employee stress will decrease, thus increasing their productivity, and boosting their levels of engagement and appreciation. Employees need to learn to better understand their financial position, reduce debt, save money and become more financially independent.

Enter the financial wellness movement. These programs help employees build better financial habits and provide them with the resources necessary to fare better at any income level or life stage.

Definition & Scope

What is financial wellness?

Financial wellness is defined when an individual:
• Has control over their day-to-day finances
• Has the capacity to absorb a financial shock
• Is on track to meet financial goals, including planning for retirement
• Has the financial freedom to make the choices that allow them to enjoy life
[CFPB Financial Well-Being Scale: Scale Development Technical Report, May 2017]

Beyond the basic definition, financial wellness can look and feel very different to an individual based on their age, financial status and other factors (cultural, geographical, etc). There are also a variety of “stages” that an individual can be at in their financial journey. Beginning with the basic elements of understanding their financial state and being able to withstand an emergency, all the way to the more established position of financial planning, the needs of an individual can be a linear progression.

Generally, the stages fall into the following groupings (and applicable tools), where the stage can be “checked off” or mastered before moving on to the next level of planning:

The 5 Stages of Financial Wellness



Two Areas Within Human Resources Driving Demand


401(K) or defined contribution plans have become the cornerstone of retirement planning, but the data still shows less than ideal saving rates. As a result, employers have been working with plan administrators to help employees save more.

Current trends to modify the traditional 401(k) structure, such as automatic enrollment and managed accounts, are helping to push toward this goal but are not making enough of an impact. The demand for additional resources in this area is driving market demand for more financial education and coaching solutions.

The demand and vendor landscape to meet those needs has been growing for the past twenty years and was accelerated by the introduction of the Pension Protection Act of 2006.

Health Benefits

Recent trends in the wellness industry have seen the primary program focus expand beyond physical wellness, to now include a more holistic approach to total well-being.

Comprehensive well-being programs now recognize stress as having a major impact on overall health, health-related behaviors and workplace productivity. Stress and Resilience programs often teach employees to cope with the impacts of stress, but employers are looking further to identify and affect the root cause of stress within their populations.

This has driven the demand for resources that can specifically address financial stress and integrate with the health and well-being ecosystem of resources.

No matter where the concept takes hold within each organization, both departments will need to coordinate and figure out the best way to define, implement and communicate any new financial wellness benefits provided to employees. Similarly, consulting firms might have to team up to support their respective HR client. For example, if the Manager of Health Benefits initiates a project to incorporate financial wellness into the existing well-being initiatives, they may find themselves working with consultants from the retirement practice; and vice versa.

Given the array of personal finance needs in the market, there are a myriad of vendor solutions and innovation is developing rapidly to meet the growing demand in the employer space.

In the following sections, we’ll examine:
• The types of programs being categorized as Financial Wellness
• Key features vendors use to support their efforts
• Delivery media utilized by these programs
• “Food for Thought” when making buying decisions




In terms of services offered, the market can be segmented into six major categories of service:
Click the category to expand

Most vendors provide content that can be educational in nature. The vendors we’re describing in this section have education as the entirety of their program, not just a component of their program. They believe that educated employees will put their learning into practice and become more financially responsible. These vendors focus on improving Financial Literacy (think “Personal Finance 101”) and for employees to better understand the financial implications of their decisions.

These services are typically delivered via e-learning courses and videos and the level of customization (ex. incorporating company benefits and resources into the content) varies among these programs. Some vendors also offer packages of classroom style workshops or speakers for worksite classes. Where feasible (meaning, there are enough people at a location to warrant an on-site visit), employers may prefer this type of program delivery for low tech, blue-collar, or multilingual populations.

Participation in financial education programs is often tracked and provided back to the employer for credit in their well-being incentive structure.

A second set of vendors are focused on helping employees track and manage their financial situations with a set of Financial Coaching Tools. These “Digital Platforms” offer practical and ever-more personalized tools available via a mobile app and/or dynamic online service. All Digital Financial Wellness Platforms assist people with budgeting and developing a financial plan. Typically, a budget is developed by the individual and adjusted to ensure there is positive cash flow with the help of features that show how much can be allocated to spending, paying off debt or increasing savings over time.

All Digital Financial Wellness Platforms assist people with budgeting and developing a financial plan. Typically, a budget is developed by the individual and adjusted to ensure there is positive cash flow with the help of features that show how much can be allocated to spending, paying off debt or increasing savings over time. Many also offer a reminder feature to the user to stay on track.

Some of these platforms integrate with your financial accounts and are helpful in assisting in cash flow management and budgeting. This feature of automating the budget-tracking process is referred to as “Account Aggregation” or “Personal Financial Management (PFM)” tools in the Financial Wellness space. For anyone familiar with Mint, a consumer app, these services offer similar functionality to Mint, each with their own unique spin/value.

This category broadly covers access to a financial professional for guidance and counseling to achieve personal financial goals. This category IS NOT portfolio management, investment advice or other advanced money management services. Financial Coaching vendors generally provide three primary services, in this order: a personal financial assessment, a financial plan, and some level of one-on-one professional support to assist the individual in carrying out the plan.

    • Personal Financial Assessment – Most assessments are fairly short and ask basic questions regarding assets, income, debt and savings. Some vendors do use this exercise to gather specific personal financial information to produce a detailed budget and financial plan. Many assessments are also followed by a score, which provides a benchmark for the individual and is also handy for aggregate measurement of Value-On-Investment (VOI) to the employer.


    • Personal Financial Plan – Personalized financial plans vary greatly in their level of detail and dynamic design. Some are produced as separate, editable documents for the users, while others live within the platform/app for future reference within the program. Beyond the plan itself, progress trackers and reminders are also features that help participants stay on track.


    • One-on-One Support from a Coach or Counselor – As a follow-up to the assessment results and financial plan, steps for engaging with a professional coach are presented to the participant. These counseling sessions with a financial coach are personnel heavy, have a high cost to deliver, and therefore, are often the main driver in price point of a specific program. Counseling options may include online chat sessions, phone calls and/or in-person appointments. Here are some key considerations when comparing providers in the Financial Coaching category:

• The education & experience of the professional staff: Some vendors require that all their counseling staff have the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) designation. Other vendors purport that this high degree of expertise is not necessary for the common customer. They believe that most people just need guidance on getting out of debt, developing a budget or building an emergency savings – all those things can be handled by a trained financial coach or someone with an Accredited Financial Advisor (AFC) designation, a.k.a, a CFP-in training who is working towards his/her hours requirement.

There are also many specialty certificates, such as Credit Card Counselor, and even a Certified Financial Wellness Educator. As for more advanced financial planning needs, investment advisors registered with SEC, may be accessible as part of the financial coaching service. However, most Financial Wellness vendors will refer out to a partner service, back to the 401(k) plan administrator, or make recommendations for the participant to find an investment advisor on their own.

• Coach staffing and motivation: Will the financial planner make financial product recommendations (i.e. life insurance, IRAs, college savings plans etc.)? And if so, are those recommendations independent and unbiased? Are the financial coaches full-time staff members or would the participant have to access a network of financial planning practitioners?

• Frequency, depth and follow-up: How many sessions are included? Can the individual pay out of pocket for additional sessions?

Corporate Student Loan Programs provide online education, modeling and informed decision-making about the best options for the individual to pay off their student loans, including refinancing and adjusting pay-off schedules. The service is personalized to the individual and links to lenders to pull in actual loan information for modeling. Vendors may also offer access to a counselor via chat or over the phone.

In addition, most vendors administer loan contributions from employers who would like to help employees pay off their loans. Plan designs are employer-specific, for example $100/month contribution or a match with a cap. Some key differences of these vendors are:

    • Contribution Type – Some vendors allow employers to provide matching contributions. Similar to a 410(k) match, these allow the employer to make contributions based on the employee’s monthly contribution. Others only provide fixed contributions by the employee and/or employer.


    • Refinancing Options – If the vendor offers a refinancing option, ask them what lenders they work with. Some vendors will offer refinancing opportunities from multiple student lenders such as SoFi, CommonBond and Earnest, leading to more competitive rates.


  • Availability of Loan Modeling/Calculator – Calculators can help answer common questions such as: How much does my employer’s contribution save me in interest? How long will it take for me to pay off all my debt? How much interest will I save across all my student loans? How much do I pay each month in principal and interest on all my student loans?

This benefit will become more attractive to employers if it joins the ranks of tax-favored employer benefits. On February 1, 2017, a bill has been sent to Congress to amend the tax code that would make the first $5,250 of employer contributions toward student debt assistance tax deductible. You can track the bill’s progress in Congress here: H.R. 795.

Employer Short-Term Loans provide a way for employees to access cash at interest rates much lower than the average credit card. Participants repay the loan through payroll deductions. It’s especially welcome by employees who have poor credit scores and don’t have access to credit or financing to pay for emergencies. This is an alternative for employees that may otherwise be driven to borrow from retirement plans, predatory lenders, or high rate credit cards to bridge short term gaps in their finances.

For employees with more advanced financial planning needs, there are some vendors that provide asset aggregation along with portfolio management and investment advice.

Technology has revolutionized the financial services industry in the past decade and several respectable robo-advisors are readily available to the public. Some of these vendors have also extended into the employer space with the value proposition of an ad-free platform that is pre-synced with an employer’s 401(k) or stock plans.



While the types of Financial Wellness services can vary greatly, a further level of variance comes when you layer in the features that each program offers to support their objectives. Program features often manifest as digital “add-ons”, which enhance the effectiveness or help to improve engagement rates of the program.

401(k) programs have long offered a projection tool to see if your savings is on track to meet income needs in retirement. Financial Wellness calculators go beyond that. They are essentially financial modeling tools for all aspects of personal finance and designed to help address major financial decisions throughout your life. Common calculators answer questions like: should I buy a home now or continue to rent? Which credit card should I pay off first? Should I save more for my retirement or start a college savings plan for my kids?

Most banks, credit companies and billed services provide functionality to set up recurring automatic payments. Some financial wellness vendors have begun to incorporate this concept into their digital platform or are in the process of building it. This functionality provides strong value to the end-user, allowing them a single point of access to manage their finances, plus the ability to take actions and see how those actions impact their short- and long-term financial plan.

Since behavior theory figures prominently in financial success, goal setting is essential. Most programs prompt the user to formulate attainable goals and prioritize. As the program monitors your progress towards a goal, some support the progress with reminders or alerts sent to the user by phone or email to provide encouragement or help them stay on track.

Another feature that supports behavior theory is the integration of social support. Research has shown greater individual success rates when people are part of a group working towards similar goals. Some vendors offer private forums or small work groups to establish a support system that may not be available in an individual’s own environment. Also, the Question/Answer style of a professionally managed blog or knowledgebase can serve as a DIY form of financial education, often a preferred learning medium of millennials.

Some financial coaching vendors staff their coach team by contracting with private financial planners that have agreed to provide availability and coaching on a remote basis. There is also a movement to create a network of CFPs that participants can access to schedule live appointments with in their local area. This feature is similar to an EAP plan provider that refers participants to local psychologists and social workers once the level of care exceeds the EAPs call model.

Mobile-first is a term that you will hear some vendors in the space touting. This is when a company designs their program with the mobile experience as the top priority, followed by other technologies like desktop or tablet. At this time, most vendors do not have a native mobile app. Instead, they offer a mobile optimized site that provides full functionality of all features of their platform and can be accessed easily from the internet whenever the person would like to view it.


How can employees access financial wellness services? On-line, over the phone or in-person are the three primary means of accessing these programs. The type of delivery channel is highly correlated with the price of the service, with on-line being the most scalable and affordable and in-person being the least.

As it turns out, about half of employees don’t feel the need for one-on-one engagement and opt for on-line, self-service tools. The other half of employees “just want to talk to someone”, especially about something as personal, complicated, and important as their financial situation.

A survey conducted by Jellyvision found the following employee preferences:



Online sessions



One-on-one in-person meeting



In-person group presentation



Direct mail





Note, that about half of the population prefers to engage online. A Bank of America / Merrill Lynch study went deeper on this issue to see the preferences between different generations (see chart below). They concluded that, just about half of the respondents want one-on-one help, regardless of the generation they belong to.

To maximize engagement, it’s best to offer a variety of options that will attract different types of people. Some people prefer to engage from the privacy of their own home, while others are comfortable having these conversations (with discretion) at work. Some prefer to work one-on-one with a live person, while others prefer to do so independently online. The more options you can provide, the better it will be to engage the majority of your population.



If possible, consider running a survey or focus group to find out what your employees want in a program! While implementing one of these and waiting for the results, you can work with the 401(k) administrator or other record keeper to do a demographic analysis, which will allow you to identify target audiences that could benefit most from financial wellness services (e.g. employees over the age of 55 with less than $50,000 saved or employees in the lowest salary quartile).

You can also review data around 401(k) loans, hardships, wage garnishments, and so on, to provide insight into your “lowest hanging fruit”. IFEBP recently reported the results from 53 organizations that have conducted a needs assessment and found that over half of employees face one or more of the following financial challenges: credit card and other debt (74%), saving/paying for children’s education (62%), saving for retirement (60%), and covering basic living expenses (53%) (IFEBP, What’s Working in Workplace Financial Wellness, 2017).

As you gather employee feedback, be mindful and probe into privacy concerns that employees may have. Many reports cite high percentages of employees concerned about disclosing personal financial data through an employer sponsored program.

Vendor’s motivation is particularly important in this industry, because you want the help that you provide to your employees to be an “independent and unbiased” financial advice, and you don’t want employees to be sold on additional or unnecessary products and services. Historically, the financial wellness market has been largely driven by the need to provide everyday people with access to financial advice that they can trust. Therefore, many vendors make the distinction that their services are free from any underlying motivations to sell additional services/products. Understanding the background and ownership structure of a vendor can provide insights into their motivations.

There are few major types of companies that have entered the financial wellness market:

Financial Planners – Financial Planning is a traditional profession, so you’ll find that many vendors with a long history of providing financial planning services to individuals, have recently adapted to the new Financial Wellness market in order to serve employers. There was a natural progression for these firms, since the demand for Financial Wellness first grew out of the retirement side of benefits departments.

Some of these vendors are, or were, private financial advisory firms that have expanded or shifted their focus. Many of them still leverage their relationships with financial firms, looking to sell products.

Large Financial Institutions – Some solutions are part of a large financial institution (e.g., record-keeper) that has been delivering investment advice, insurance products, or other financial services. Many of these saw a need early on to educate their clients on best practices in financial health as it clearly relates to the purchase of their primary product/service (Ex. Prudential, Fidelity, or MetLife).

Industry Pioneers – There are some industry pioneers that have been providing financial education and advice to employee populations for 20+ years, primarily as education offerings and/or live financial counseling sessions. (Ex. Ernst & Young, Financial Finesse, Mapping Your Future)

Recent Entrants – With the emergence of the Financial Wellness Movement, there are a plethora of new entrants bringing their expertise in technology to the industry. Most of these new entrants have their primary mission to deliver a platform or digital tools for people to improve their financial wellness by way of self-service, with add-on services such as live coaching. (Ex. DoubleNet Pay, Best Money Moves, PeopleJoy, or Sum180)


A comprehensive solution, combining the best of each of these models, does not currently exist and there are limited industry partnerships established. With that in mind, it’s important to develop a vendor configuration model and strategy for sourcing each of the benefits to be offered.

Many financial coaching vendors consider themselves to be a “comprehensive solution.” This means that they are offering three key components: a platform with digital tools, financial education and coaching delivered via phone/in-person. This one stop shop does lay a strong foundation for the full population to access and is often the simplest for an employer to administer.

A second approach is the subset of vendors that have developed more strongly in one or two areas, and may be a better fit for the employer’s specific needs that were uncovered through a survey or focus group. Taking this “best component” approach may result in piecing together program components that best meet the population’s high priority needs and interests. For example, a highly compensated employee population may opt to provide access to a network of local CFPs that employees can meet with in-person, as well as a robo-advisor to help manage their assets. This sample population may be less inclined to need short-term loans or advice on how to pay down debt.

Even when working with a comprehensive financial coaching vendor, there may be a need to offer another resource in the mix, such as a cash flow management tool, access to short-term loans or student loan repayment program.

Still, there are many employers that are just getting started with financial wellness and just want to “dip their toe in the water”. A common approach is to get started by offering a stand-alone benefit (ex. student loan repayment), while they take extra time to consider more foundational partners that can serve the full population.

No matter what strategy is pursued, be sure to consider leveraging existing resources (ex. EAP, 401(K), and health & well-being platforms) to develop an optimal model to facilitate engagement and cross-references amongst all resources and benefits.

Aside from the desired services and employee experience, finding the right Financial Wellness vendor-partner isn’t much different than other HR benefit vendor selections. This means that strategic alignment is important because leadership, communications and culture all come into play.

Take the time to get to know the potential partners and gain a good understanding of what it will be like working together throughout the year. Key attributes to consider about the vendor you select include:

• Strategic Planning
• Account Management
• Engagement Boosting Services (e.g. promotional support and incentive administration)
• Reporting and Measuring Success


Most vendors charge a PEPM fee for access to their digital platform, health literacy library or other stand-alone resources. Also, there may be a one-time implementation and/or set-up fee. Financial coaching is usually an additional, separate fee, with variable cost range (either PEPM or Per Participant), primarily dependent on how the service is delivered (online chat, phone, in-person) and the expertise of the professional staff.

Specialty niches (e.g. student loan repayment, short-term loans and investment advice) can have more unique pricing structures.

When is best to introduce the benefit to the population? Off-cycle from Annual Enrollment! That seems to be the consensus to incorporate a new benefit to manage for the HR staff, as well as grab the attention of employees outside of the busy Annual Enrollment period. From there, promoting the new benefit will be an ongoing endeavor to ensure that employees are aware of the benefit and take advantage of it. Incentive designs are becoming more common to help with engagement as well.

In terms of implementation, lead-times vary based on the type of service and level of portal customization. Some of the digital tools and stand-alone resources are so turn-key, that they can go-live within a month. However, a more comprehensive program will typically take 90 days – more if there are complex customizations or integrations.



Compared to other benefits, the financial wellness industry is in it’s infancy. The definition itself of financial wellness is one that can be debated and the program components that fit in the category are more grey than black and white. One thing is clear, financial stress is real! A large portion of the population suffers from financial stress and in some cases, it can be crippling to their productivity and have a negative impact on their physical and emotional well-being.

Shortlister has gone through a process to identify and onboard all of the key players in the space into our database. Each vendor provides information on their program, how it is offered, who they work with, the goals and philosophies they best align with, and so on. We put them through a “validation review” and then have them complete an extensive RFI, which they can update in real-time as their information changes over time. This process, along with the thousands of buying transactions in the wellness space, give us a unique insight into this market.

If you need assistance in understanding the best vendor option for your needs, or to streamline the process of comparing vendors, we are in the best position to help you do so. Don’t hesitate to contact us for support.

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