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Seattle office provides financial education for staff

“People aren’t necessarily financially literate,” says Ann S. Callahan, human resources manager for Helsell Fetterman, a 30-staff, 30-attorney firm in Seattle. Personal finance “is not something they learn in school.”

As an HR person and a long-time administrator of 401k plans, Callahan has seen “a wide range of ways people use their plans and how they don’t use them.” She has seen, too, that people don’t understand how to make the most of financial planning.

So Callahan began a series of education programs for both attorneys and staff where speakers come in to explain various aspects of personal money management. And interest has been high, she says. For the first presentation, attendance was nearly 50%.

An understandable overview

The programs are held during lunch and last for about an hour. There’s no strict schedule, Callahan says. They are simply held “as I have time to work on a topic and get it lined up.”

The series opener was an overview of personal finance where the presenters compared finance to building a house—the framing pieces being savings, insurance, and investments to support retirement. The information was basic, which meant people were comfortable asking questions, she says.

Many wanted to know the fundamentals such as how much to save, what to do with their savings, and how to plan for retirement. The speakers showed how savings depends on age and what an individual’s savings goals are.

People with more complex questions, not of interest to the entire group, were able to meet with the presenters afterwards.

A new necessity

The second program was on an entirely different topic. It covered long-term care and its advantages, costs, and drawbacks.

Callahan chose that topic because of the growing need for long-term care in an aging population and also because people often “aren’t aware of it, don’t feel the need for it, or can’t afford it.”

Many of the staff and attorneys are approaching retirement age, she says. In fact, the firm has more people over 40 than under 40. “This is something they need to be educated about.”

From whole life to the 401K

Another speaker covered life insurance and focused on whole life policies, which allow policyholders to build up cash equity.

The presentation included examples of how the value of the account increases, how that affects the total investment picture, and when it’s beneficial to cash in a policy. There was also information on policy prices and the tax implications involved.

This session wasn’t as well received as the others, she says, mainly because it wasn’t applicable to everybody.

The session after that, however, was well attended. The topic was how to make best use of the firm’s 401k plan.

The presenter, who was someone from the firm’s administrative office, stayed for several hours after the program to answer individual questions and make appointments.

Callahan is preparing a survey to find out what people are interested in. Because more women than men attend the programs, an overview of the financial issues women face is a possibility.

Not too salesy please

Finding speakers has been easy, although finding the right speakers has taken some effort, Callahan says. “It’s a challenge to find people who will present a well-balanced educational piece as opposed to selling stuff.” No one wants to sit through a sales spiel.

She has been frank about that with the office, however. She continues to explain that the speakers “are salespeople but aren’t there to sell you anything.”

Good information for lunch

Callahan points out that as a human resources person, part of her job is to provide information. And the programs do that. They educate people “on things they haven’t been aware of” and let people learn “in a way that’s easy for them.”

And people have acted on what they’ve learned, she says. Some have chosen to work with the presenters on a personal level. Others have changed their tax withholding amounts. Others have increased their 401k contributions. Some have moved to a Roth account.

“They are assessing the information and making adjustments based on what they are learning. People are busy, so if I can spoon-feed some interesting information while someone is having a sandwich, that’s really satisfying.”

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