Confessions of a benefits manager: Candid gets money wise

Confessions

Big Bad Boss is just back from a conference. The first chance we get to do something interesting in real life, and he decides to go without me. Huff. He’s come back raving about a new supplier in the wellbeing space, a firm that is offering a new type of financial coaching. I’m not sure what the big deal is about; we already offer financial advice as part of our employee assistance programme, although I’ll admit our offering is limited to a kind of directory of other advisers you can go to in your own time (and at your own expense).

I wonder if Big Money Coaches have schmoozed Big Bad Boss over a nice lunch. I notice our preferred suppliers are often selected based on the size of their entertaining budget. I wouldn’t mind if it was me that got taken to lunch, but I just get to do the legwork setting them up. Big Bad Boss gives me their goody-bag as a consolation. Inside there is a glossy brochure (blah blah yawn), an erasable pen and a rather nice notebook to add to my collection.

Making contact

Big Bad Boss gives me the name of the account manager to contact for a demo and quotation. Jeremy is delighted to hear from us. Well he would be, wouldn’t he? He says the best way to understand their offering is to experience it. Would I like a complementary Big Money Coaching session? Never one to turn down a freebie, I am in. We arrange a time for a one-to-one call after work.

I’m interested to find that Big Money Coaching is not offering a ‘platform’ in the usual sense. Nor does it look like it is flogging an app tied into investment management. That is something of a relief. While employees can benefit from cheaper investment management through group purchasing, I can’t help but feel as an organisation we are enabling third-party access to our employees’ savings which feels a bit unethical to me. Perhaps that is just my cynical way of looking at things. Big Money Coaching say they are doing something quite different. I guess I am about to find out.

Trialling a session

Sven is my personal Big Money Coach and even on Zoom he is rather handsome. I could actually enjoy doing this. He starts by pitching their benefits: studies show that employees who have a financial plan will make better use of their money and that they are likely to increase their wealth by thousands within one year. He then shares a few online forms we are to complete together. The first is a simple budget, collecting typical income and outgoings. For a moment, I am concerned about privacy; do I really want a stranger knowing all my personal finance information? The fact is I don’t, but I do want to benefit from the freebie. In any case Big Bad Boss has asked me to do this, so I guess I am stuck. Maybe it’s working in reward, but I already have a spreadsheet tracking my spending by category, so this isn’t particularly useful for me. However, I know that some employees, even the well-paid ones, live precariously from one payday to the next, so I can see the exercise will be useful for many.

We then go on to look at long-term planning. What are my financial goals? I’m very clear on that: to pay off my mortgage and save enough to retire so I can stop all this nonsense. Sven asks me what age I’d like to retire. Last year is my first thought, but I settle on 60 as a more realistic target. I’m nerdy about numbers so I already have a spreadsheet totting up my various pensions and estimating retirement, but it’s good to have another view on this. The Big Money Coach tool also allows for many other financial goals, like saving for a deposit or children’s education. Sven tells me if they were engaged by my company, they would integrate with our benefits package and help employees to understand how to make the most of them, saving a lot of questions from being asked of the benefits team. Sven certainly knows how to say the right thing!

Decision time

Finally, we build an action list based on my personal financial plan. Again, I kind of already have this, but talking to someone else about it is very reassuring. It’s also nice that he’s not a financial adviser. My experience of financial advisers is awful; it seems they are always advising to put investments in their own particular platform. Big Money Coaches are not financial advisers, but sadly I notice they are not without affiliated interests. If I want to write a will, they can put me in touch with someone. If I want to renegotiate my mortgage, they can hook me up with a good mortgage adviser. I’m beginning to feel like my financial action list is merely a tool for them to get affiliation kickbacks. Reading the fine print, they say they do not earn commission for recommending investment products, but they may earn commission on mortgage and insurance products. Gotcha. It is sad to realise once again that it is impossible to get totally impartial advice.

However, I do think Big Money Coaches have an interesting proposition. These days, when everything we do in life has been automated through platforms and chatbots, it is really refreshing to have a one-to one coaching conversation with an actual human, even if it does turn out they are not completely unbiased.

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Back in the office, I work with Jeremy on a coaching package to offer our employees. We’ve no budget for additional benefits this year, so it’ll have to be arranged as a salary sacrifice option. I even get to keep Sven as my personal money coach. Result.

Next time… Candid goes to a trustee meeting.