3 Financial Wellness Programs That Really Work

This piece, written by our CEO Cameron Madill, was originally published in the Credit Union Times.

Let’s be honest. Many credit unions’ financial wellness initiatives, though well-intentioned, tend to fall flat. As a credit union advocate in the digital marketing space, I always love seeing a comprehensive, user-friendly financial education blog, a well-designed email series chock-full of enlightening tidbits and tips, or a seamlessly integrated event calendar with enticing webinars on personal financial management.

But, as many a Google Analytics report has shown me, even the best online initiatives tend to be underutilized, as are many in-person financial counseling and advising programs. Why is this? There are valid and oft-cited reasons – shame, time constraints, etc. – but perhaps we are still missing some key pieces of the puzzle. These three takeaways from innovative financial wellness initiatives provide insight into where our efforts may be missing the mark.

1. Don’t address financial wellness in a vacuum. In February 2018, Allegacy Federal Credit Union, based in Winston-Salem, N.C., launched WellQ, an innovative partnership with Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center that aims to merge physical and mental health with financial wellness. WellQ is a natural, if ambitious, extension of Allegacy’s mission to help “members pursue wellness of mind, body and wallet.”

In a little over one year since the launch of WellQ, the initiative has focused on humanizing primary care, putting a healthy lifestyle within reach, and uncluttering the complicated health care space. From wellness assessments, to diet and exercise programs, and even innovative products like a savings account that rewards local members with dividends for exercising at their local YMCA, WellQ is redefining the connection between members’ health, wellness and finances. Allegacy and WellQ understand that people generally want to take control of their health, but often don’t feel empowered to do so. Credit unions hear a similar sentiment from members in regard to their financial wellness. Merging these two perceived challenges, and proactively working with members to overcome them, just may be the ticket to a wellness program that really works.

2. Lead with financial wellness, follow with financial products. Financial education is all too often presented as an afterthought – one link buried in mega-menus full of financial products. Peninsula Credit Union bucks this trend by focusing on financial wellness first. Every Peninsula employee is a certified financial counselor, and the credit union presents its financial products as one component of its financial wellness approach, rather than the “holy grail” of financial success. Because let’s face it, a high-interest savings account is nice, but it’s not going to solve all our financial woes.

Interestingly, the attitude shift comes not just in how the financial education is presented to prospects and members, but also in how valuable education efforts are for a credit union’s bottom line. If a credit union views financial wellness programs as “freemium products,” they will be presented and prioritized as such.

Shawn Gilfedder, former CEO of McGraw Hill Federal Credit Union (which recently merged with PenFed), once put it this way: “The comparison I like the most is when you think about Zappos, right? Zappos is a great service company that happens to sell shoes. Our future, and I think the future of many a credit union, is we should be known for promoters of financial wellness that happen to sell retail banking products.”

3. Reevaluate your target market, and start young! In all the frenzy over millennials and Gen Z, credit unions might be overlooking their most valuable young demographic: Kindergarteners! Some credit unions focus on youth, but most of their efforts are targeted at high schoolers, and according to John Lanza, founder of MoneyMammals.com, that’s way too late. Financial education programs should begin as early as five years old, and to be successful, they need to be fun, concrete and experiential. MoneyMammals.com aims to resist the bombardment of advertising and marketing that our children face from a young age, and to provide them with the tools to be less consumer-driven and more money smart.

Credit unions, Lanza argues, can build lifelong bonds with new members by focusing on them from a young age, and by providing parents with the tools to help their children be money smart. It’s not only the right thing to do, but also a wise business move. McDonald’s knows all about the importance of building brand loyalty from a young age. Credit unions can use similar tactics, but rather than building poor dietary habits, they can help their young members build positive financial habits that will empower them for years to come.

As you reevaluate your credit union’s financial wellness program, ask yourself some key questions. Does your program take into account the myriad factors that affect your members’ perceived sense of wellness, financial or otherwise? Is your program presented as a central tenet of your mission, or as a hastily executed afterthought? Is it tailored to the audiences most likely to benefit?

Then pause to ask yourself: Does the world really need another blog post about Budgeting 101? The honest answer is probably not. By thinking bigger, you have an opportunity to drive more meaningful results for your members, attract more new members, build more brand loyalty – and have some fun while you’re at it.

Hannah talking on the phone