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Financial Coaching Helps, but It's Not Enough: Survey

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Financial wellness is a lot like a sport, according to the results in the latest Financial Finesse Year in Review. The more you practice, the better you do.

Employees who repeatedly engaged with a financial planner through Financial Finesse, for example, were more likely to have an emergency fund, pay off monthly credit card bills in full, and be confident about their investments and retirement savings than employees who had fewer interactions with a planner or used only online sources. Repeated interactions were defined as five or more within a year.

“We are big believers that coaching helps motivate people,” said Cynthia Meyer, a financial planner at Financial Finesse, which provides financial education and planning at workplaces as part of employee benefit programs.

But even those employees who frequently met with a planner or talked with one over phone still seemed to have work to do on their finances. Only 48% of them said they were on track to reach their income goal for retirement despite the fact that 98% contributed to a 401(k) plan at work.

The decline in stock prices last year coupled with a mere 2% growth in real wages — which are adjusted for inflation — likely contributed to a failure to save enough for retirement.

Overall, only 22% of employees who participated in the survey reported being on track for retirement, which leaves nearly eight in 10 failing to do so.

Just under half reported having an emergency fund to pay bills for a few months if they lose their job, and 40% were confident that their asset investment allocations were appropriate. In almost all cases, the percentages of financial preparedness for retirement, emergencies, bill payments and so on increased with age and income. Those 65 or older with incomes of $200,000 or more tended to be in better financial shape than those younger and poorer.

The number one challenge for respondents earning less than $60,000 was not surprisingly having too few savings to cover emergencies. At $60,000 and over, the number one concern was not saving enough for retirement.

Respondents of all ages, from under 30 to 65 or older, listed “not saving enough retirement”  as their number one financial concern. That was followed by not having enough saved for emergencies for those under 30 to 54. Among those above 54, the number two concern was not adequately protecting one’s wealth.

“High levels of debt” placed in the top three or four financial concerns for those under 30 to 44 and those with incomes up to $99,000, no matter their age.

Meyer noted the “triple whammy” effect of debt, cash management (emergency funds) and retirement savings. “Those three areas have a cascading effect with cash flow management challenges often leading to increased consumer debt, which reduces or eliminates funds available for retirement savings,” according to the report.

Sixty-five percent of respondents felt overwhelmed by their debt levels, according to the report, and 42% of financially distressed boomers said they did not have a plan to pay off their debt, up from 36% in 2014. One of the bright spots of the survey, which had about 45,000 respondents, was the narrowing gap between men and women. Although a smaller percentage of women than men were comfortable with debt levels, investment strategies, cash flow and retirement planning, the gap between the sexes had narrowed slightly from the previous year’s report, to five percentage points from seven. The survey notes that may be due in part to the fact that 7 out of 10 women were repeat users of financial wellness programs compared with just under 3 out of 10 men.

“Women employees are taking steps to improve their financial wellness, particuarly in risk management, estate planning and retirement plan participation,” according to the report. This is epsecially important because women live longer than men and generally earn less money, and therefore collect less Social Security and have a harder time saving for retirement.

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