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Financial Planning Advice Isn’t Just a Math Equation

A holistic, personalized approach can help advisors deliver quality recommendations.


We spend a lot of time and energy discussing the value of personalized financial planning advice—and I love it. It feels like we’re headed in the right direction, especially because the value proposition of the retirement advisor/consultant has evolved over the last decade.

Now more than ever, investment expertise and core menu design are table stakes for a retirement plan advisor. And helping the participant tactically with their financial life is at the center of the ask from plan sponsors to their plan advisor.

The advisors we see winning in the market are well positioned to help. They can be the consultant to the committee in the board room plus offer advice that changes lives in the breakroom. Bringing best practices on how to serve the individual and a holistic approach—from the wealth management practices of the advisor—into the retirement plan is powering the delivery of better, more personalized financial planning advice to more and more people who need it.

My own career has taken a similar journey in many ways over the years, shifting to focus on how to help individual 401(k) participants, including those who may not meet the asset thresholds needed to work with an advisor. I can point to a few moments along the way that played a major role in why I’ve become obsessed with the idea of getting people the financial help they need.

For example, I can vividly remember my first industry panel and quote in an article, now 15 years old but alive and well on the internet: “Walmart a smart shopper for target date funds.” I was so proud, and the headline was perfect! My extended family was in shock, assuming the only mention in print I would ever get would be in the Crime Report. It was an amazing time to be at Walmart, helping to design a retirement plan that was experiencing rapid growth in both assets and the number of participants. We did some great work.

If I think about those handful of years in Bentonville, there’s one initiative that jumps out as the most impactful—and a pivotal moment for me. It also had nothing to do with investments in the least bit.

With more than a million participants in the plan, and a non-elective employer contribution, participation was low. As you can imagine, in the era of the iPhone 3 and where not everyone was wired in, communication to a million participants was both difficult and expensive. So how could we deliver simple help, drive participant adoption, and get saving rates up for participants?

We were lucky and timing was great. There were some important changes to the healthcare program launching, and open enrollment was a critical step—which had a lot of focus with the Benefit Department. We had an idea and convinced an open enrollment team prioritizing healthcare to add a few lines of code, with a simple message:

  • If you were already participating in the plan—congratulations! Now is a great time to increase your retirement savings. Click here to increase.

  • If you weren’t yet participating—do you want to save for your future and start saving in the plan? Click here to enroll.

Four weeks later, we added around 150,000 participants to the plan, and processed tens of thousands of savings rate increases. It was a small nudge with a big impact on people’s lives.

Another meaningful moment happened during a 45-minute retirement counseling session I observed when I worked at the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System. One of my first jobs more than 20 years ago, I was hired as part of the team that built and launched the defined contribution and hybrid plan complements to the defined benefit plan that has served public servants in the state for decades.

A couple times a year, the head of our group would sign us up to observe the team of financial counselors, whose function was most often focused on meeting with pre-retirees, helping them transition into retirement, apply for benefits, etc.

As the doors opened to the building, a man from a small city in Ohio walked in to fill out the paperwork to “get his money out.” The team at the front desk convinced the man to forgo the paperwork and sit down with a counselor to discuss his options. Growing up near that city, I knew he had driven almost two hours to get to Columbus and most likely wanted to make the visit quick.

The counselor I was observing was amazing. He connected with the man and got him talking about his financial situation. This man was in his early 60s, and for a number of reasons worked on and off throughout his life. He qualified for Social Security, but for an amount smaller than he needed to live a life without possible struggle. He also felt embarrassed and stressed about not having personal savings. Again, the financial counselor disarmed him and focused on the positive.

My side note is that I’m tired of reading articles and comments by industry experts that chalk financial insecurity up to people making mistakes, dismissing the broader idea that everyone deserves help. We all make mistakes—some big, some small. That doesn’t mean advisors shouldn’t work hard to help you.

Back to the man from Ohio, who had just wrapped up 14 years as a worker for the state. The financial counselor walked him through why “taking his money” was a mistake. We shared with him the OPERS benefit formula. Plus, access to high-quality, low-cost healthcare. Within 20 minutes, the man went from not knowing he had a pension with plans to take a lump sum distribution (which we all agreed he would’ve mismanaged) to having a 30% income replacement for life, plus COLA. A 45-minute financial counseling session changed his life.

It was an emotional moment for him (admittedly a bit for me as well). But not for the financial counselor. Why? Because he had very similar conversations with around half his appointments on a weekly basis. Less than an hour of empathy, some math, and a little bit of advice—changing 40 lives a week.

Did I just write my origin story? Am I a superhero? Sadly no, now back to the present. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have worked with individuals or been closer to the individuals we build products and services for—they mostly understand. We’re getting better at answering the question, “How do we deliver advice to everyone that needs it?” I see the answer being delivered better every year, with retirement advisors playing a larger, more impactful role moving forward. No more silos, just high-quality advice for whoever needs it. I’m proud to be a part of powering that behind the scenes, with services like Advisor Managed Accounts and our upcoming launch of Personal Finance Builder—an expanded, more holistic approach to personalized advice that we believe people need.

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