3 benefits driving ‘material change’ in workers’ finances this year

Financial benefits in the workplace have long taken the form of education. Employees receive access to calculators, coaches or classes designed to help them learn how to create financially secure futures. But employees are asking for more in 2024. 

According to a recent study of 1,200 U.S. workers by employee wellness solution FinFit and HR Dive’s studioID, employees most want their employers to offer benefits like emergency savings accounts and access to emergency credit. If offered such tools, workers said they would be more likely to stay at their company, more likely to recommend it as an employer and more engaged in their work.

These promising findings didn’t surprise Matt Bahl, vice president of workplace financial health at the nonprofit Financial Health Network. “I think sometimes we overcomplicate what workers need and what workers want,” Bahl said. “Understand what your people want. Make the investments that you can make that solve those material challenges. And your workforce will reward you.”

Explore below the three financial benefits helping workers make financial progress in 2024.

#1: Emergency savings accounts

Eighty-six percent of U.S. workers have at least one financial goal in mind for this year, according to a recent poll from Bankrate. The most popular aspirations? Workers want to pay down debt, make more money, put away cash for emergencies and budget their spending better.

The FinFit survey confirmed these findings and went on to reveal that the No. 1 financial benefit workers desire is emergency savings accounts. That was also the benefit respondents said would make the most difference in their financial lives. 

Some employers are beginning to offer emergency savings accounts as benefits. As of January 2024, certain employees are eligible to create pension-like emergency savings accounts, or PLESAs. These accounts are packaged together with a 401(k) or other retirement savings plan, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). 

Established by the 2023 Consolidated Appropriations Act, PLESAs are available to employees who are not highly compensated, as defined by the IRS. Employers may automatically enroll employees into PLESAs and make employee contributions through payroll deductions. Participants can withdraw funds from PLESAs without suffering the penalties of drawing from retirement savings accounts. 

PLESAs are just one option when it comes to emergency savings benefits, however. Some benefits vendors offer emergency savings accounts that are more flexible than PLESAs. These accounts are outfitted with features like customizable employer-match structures, prize-based incentives, and more, making the offerings more personalized to the employee population at hand.

#2: Access to emergency credit

Emergency savings benefits may help employees begin to make financial progress, but they are only one element of stability. FinFit Chief Commercial Officer Michael Woodhead emphasized that workers also need strong credit scores and access to affordable credit.

Affordable credit may be hard to come by for workers who are already saddled with debt and marked by low credit scores. Twenty-eight percent of consumers with FICO Scores have fair or poor scores. Those with low credit scores face a severe challenge. Individuals with poor credit scores lose access to the mainstream banking system. And without the mainstream banking system, they lose access to affordable, reliable credit, forcing them to turn to sources of credit that are more expensive and less reputable. In turn, their journey toward financial stability becomes even more difficult.

That’s why it’s essential that workers have access to affordable, reputable credit, Woodhead said. When borrowers’ credit scores fall, individuals face more obstacles that further threaten their financial well-being. With higher interest rates on loans and credit cards, limited financing options and greater obstacles to housing and employment, subprime credit carries many financial consequences.

But with access to affordable credit through an employer, individuals gain another chance at financial stability.

“Once people have a safety net, they feel like they have a 750 credit score. They don’t feel like they’re living paycheck to paycheck because they’ve got a cushion that they can fall back on,” Woodhead said. “They can listen to a conversation about more responsible savings and spending behaviors because they feel like they can do that.”

#3: Debt reduction tools

According to FinFit’s survey, paying off debt and building up emergency savings are the top two changes workers want to make in their financial lives. It follows that tools like student loan repayment assistance were among the most popular benefits workers desire.

Debt reduction tools take many different forms. For example, employers can provide student loan assistance through signing bonuses, recurring payments or related incentives, like retirement matches linked to loan repayments.

With benefits like debt consolidation loans, in which repayments are deducted from payroll, employees can work toward paying off their debt at lower rates, while building their credit simultaneously. These benefits also help prevent workers from borrowing from their 401(k) accounts or accessing high-cost, credit-damaging payday loans.

Providing ‘real, material support’

The financial benefits rising in popularity this year send a clear message to employers: Employees prize benefits that help them take immediate action on their finances.

“Programs like debt reduction and emergency savings are tangible, material things that people can use in real time to solve challenges in their life,” Bahl said. “That’s not to say education doesn’t matter or that you shouldn’t provide it. But I see no evidence that you can educate your way out of those problems. You need real material support.”

Get the latest research on these benefits and more in FinFit’s report: Inside the Wallets of Working Americans.