Employee Financial Wellness: Why 401Ks are not Enough

employee financial wellness

It's currently said that college students are graduating with an average of $35,000 of debt for an education that cost well into six figures. Guess who's paying the other $100k?

That would be their parents.

Yes, folks, Millennials may get all the press for their big stack of education loans. But it turns out older adults are your workforce's fastest growing segment of the college indebted, with their numbers quietly tripling in roughly a decade.

Why Parents Borrow Too Much

It's a sign of how college financing is dogging the whole workforce. In an era when college gives kids an unquestionable edge for the future, the drive to send them is understandably intense. And parents - and these days often grandparents - are ponying up for the privilege...often into tens of thousands. A chart from College Board shows the single-year average of Parent Plus loans (federal government loans parents can borrow to help pay for their children's undergraduate education) was $15,000 in 2015. Multiply that by four years, and you've got the potential for $60,000-plus for the average borrower.

And Parent Plus loans are just one avenue available to parents to find money. There are also private education loans, home equity loans, and lines of credit, just to name a few. And Boomers are availing themselves of all of them, generating a pile of debt that's often outside the public eye.

"Kids are only allowed to borrow very limited amounts of money in their name alone, without a co-signer," says College Coach's Director of Finance Shannon Vasconcelos. Parents, on the other hand, can basically borrow whatever they want/need up to the entire cost of college. So that $35k number, she says, is just the tip of an iceberg that's almost impossible to track.

Employee Financial Wellness is an Organizational Concern

If all of that sounds complicated (and dicey!) it is - and not just for the employee. Employee financial wellness problems are notoriously bad for engagement. A study from a Kansas City brokerage firm showed a link between financially stressed employees and productivity issues. Worse, it's not one you can necessarily see. People will happily talk about their kids' college acceptance letters and commiserate about the high cost of a semester. But they're unlikely to go public if they're falling behind on payments or worse...flirting with default. It also dings the value of your well-intentioned 401k since it's probably being underused. As our Chief Culture Officer Dan Henry wrote, people with financial issues aren't thinking about retirement. "They're too busy pedaling just to keep up."

But some good advice can make a big difference. Shannon's talked to thousands of students and parents over the years and found that many haven't thought through what those amounts will mean in monthly payments. "That's probably one among dozens of complex reasons people borrow too much," she says. That means financial education - specifically on wise borrowing and smart payback - could take on multiple workforce challenges: employee financial wellness, retirement planning, and productivity, to name a few.

"Recognition of such challenges - and how they cross generational lines - also falls in line with the latest thinking about workforces; both their inter-generational makeup and the growing sense that many demographics share many of the same concerns," wrote Shannon not long ago. "So addressing it," she said, "affords companies not just a solution to a tangible problem, but also a road to coveted benefit equity."

And that kind of good strategy supports everybody's bottom line.
Employee in tie sitting down

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Written by: Ellen Oliver

About the Author

Ellen Oliver at Bright Horizons

As Director of B2B Marketing Programs, Ellen writes about talent management, employee engagement, and work/life balance trends. Ellen brings a wide perspective of human resource topics gained through working with industries from large engineering and construction firms, to government and academic organizations and nonprofits.