Firm builds tools to ease financial worry

Managers at Conrad Siegel looked at personal-finance statistics from a variety of sources and figured there must be a better way to help clients and their employees plan for a secure future.

About 44 percent of workers would not be able to cover an unexpected expense of $400; a similar number said they worry about their personal finances while at work and spend time at work dealing with money matters; a third have reported missing at least some work because of stress or dealing with a problem, the company said.

So the Harrisburg-based employee-benefit and investment-advisory firm set about to create online planning tools that would take at least some of the mystery, as well as the stress, out of financial planning.

The idea — a Financial Wellness Program — “includes a series of interactive, online educational and tracking tools designed to help participants get their finances in shape,” the company said in a statement.

“It’s a journey, and we really want to help them find their way,” Jennifer Becker, communications manager for the Harrisburg-based Conrad Siegel, said in an interview.

The calculators, videos and other educational tools can get people started in the right direction, Becker said. With the help of in-house staff and programmers, Becker said, the company created three platforms, all of which can be accessed online: saving for retirement; managing debt; and income and expenses, which covers the basics of budgeting as the “first step to financial stability.”

Other tools, such as saving for college, might be added over time as the company gets feedback from customers and monitors how the tools are used, Becker said.

Employees seem to appreciate it when employers offer the service because financial well-being is a key concern, as the statistics show, she added. But employees are assured that their employers do not have access to the sensitive financial information.

The tools are free to clients and their employees, she said, but are not available for the general public. Other companies and online tools might have one set of calculators or lessons but not the overall package that Conrad Siegel has tried to provide, she said. The initial set-up doesn’t take long. Users can then spend as little or as much time as they want working to customize what they want to achieve.

Online or in person?

Several financial advising experts said that online tools are a good start to the planning process, but they said customization is a challenge without the help of a professional adviser. They said people often over-rely on online tools and then don’t seek out the advice that might help keep them on track with their unique goals or their unique situations, they said.

Steve Bell, who is with Personal Wealth Advisory in Lancaster and who is a member of the Central Pennsylvania chapter of the Financial Planning Association, said calculators can help people see what is involved. But online tools are limited because they can’t really get into the nuances of someone’s personal finances and goals. Bell said he was speaking generally about retirement-type calculators and not the Conrad Siegel programs, which are only available to people who are signed up for its services.

Most tools allow people to get an idea of what might happen based on current and future income projections, he said. A lot of people don’t think about the many layers that might need to be peeled away to make sure that they are on the right track, such as whether they should buy or lease a car, pay off their mortgage early, pay off debts or save more, or where to invest savings and how, he said.

“There are a lot of financial decisions to further the success of an overall plan,” Bell said. “There is a lot that a calculator cannot do.”

He and Michael A. Ippoliti, a vice president at Valley Financial Investment Advisors in Bethlehem, said in separate interviews that long-term financial planning should involve meeting with a certified financial planner to evaluate a family’s individual circumstances.

Ippoliti said one problem he often sees is that people “don’t know what they don’t know,” which could lead them to make poor decisions if they try to handle planning on their own. Typically, he added, there are often multiple if not conflicting goals, such as wanting to have a vacation home while also trying to achieve long-term savings. A financial planner can help navigate those tricky decisions, he said.

People can be divided into several categories: those who are intent on doing it on their own but want to try to learn; some people who think they are experts when they are not; and then people who know they don’t understand the complexities so they reach out for help.

He also has found that a lot of the “rules of thumb” that appear to be conventional wisdom often don’t apply. One example is the advice for young people to take more risks because they have time to recover if a risk doesn’t work out. However, some younger workers want to stay conservative. The reverse can be true with older workers, who might want to take bigger risks near the ends of their careers, he said. The goal is to sort out the individual preferences and then create the right plan, Ippoliti added.

Conrad Siegel executives agreed the decisions can be complex and that people might need professional advice, but many workers just need to get started, which is where its programs help.

Tara Mashack-Behney, partner and president of Investment Advisory Services at Conrad Siegel, said online tools “can’t replace the value of individual counsel.”

“As with any tool, it’s all about how you leverage it,” Mashack-Behney said in a written response to questions. “Our vision in creating this program was to provide participants with a simple, accessible, user-friendly platform to track and analyze their financial goals — and provide a personalized experience based on what each participant identifies as their priority.”

“Our hope is that through this program, participants will be more mindful and aware of their finances and take the initiative to ask questions, seek advice and make the necessary changes to meet their goals,” she said.

She also pointed out that the company has partnerships with plan sponsors who offer individual coaching for participants on a number of financial topics.

Several experts noted that knowledge of personal finances continually evolves, so people are encouraged to continue their education.

Regular check-ins with financial advisers are a good idea, because priorities change over the years, Catherine Azeles, investment consultant with Conrad Siegel, said in an email.

“Consistency and follow-through is where so many people get stuck,” she added.

A Conversation With: Andrew Barninger

Photo: Submitted

Andrew Barninger, 30, joined Personal Wealth Advisory in 2013 and was recently named partner. He will be involved in launching NextPhase, which will focus on business transition planning.

Barninger has a bachelor’s degree in finance, economics and accounting from Mercyhurst University. He also is a certified financial planner.

He and his wife, Leah, and their month-old son live in Manheim Township.

Q: Tell us about NextPhase and the role you will take in launching it.

A: We’d been doing more financial planning and business transition work for Lancaster County small-business owners, and it’s a really unique and specialized area of planning. What we wanted to do was break off a subsidiary from Personal Wealth Advisory, which led to NextPhase Business Planning, which is going to focus on the transition planning needs of small-business owners, helping them achieve what they want, whether that is selling the business or keeping it in the family, or they want to work five or 10 more years or they want less day-to-day responsibilities.

What are some of the challenges businesses face as they start transition planning?

The main challenge we see over and over is that transition planning doesn’t happen early enough, so a business owner will come to us and say, I’d like to no longer own this business or work in it in two years. The perception is, that’s plenty of time to make this happen, but often we’re looking at five-plus years of work and strategic planning to make that transition as smooth as possible. Time is the most valuable resource in transition planning, especially if the sale proceeds the owner will eventually get are important for their long-term financial future.

Lancaster County has so many small businesses that are family-owned, and what business owners don’t realize is the next generation might have no idea how to do what the owner does on a day-to-day basis, so it’s not just figuring out how to change ownership but it’s also how that next generation is going to pay for it, how they are going to be trained to do what the owner does on a daily basis. That all takes a lot of time, because they also have to run their business and keep it profitable. Often the owners don’t start the planning process until there’s a bit of a time crunch or a health event or some catalyst.

Why do you enjoy providing financial education sessions for local associations and businesses?

I think they’re fun because it gives a platform for these business owners to take a step back from their day-to-day roles and think big picture, think long term, which sometimes are not luxuries they have in their work. I always think it’s enjoyable to help people, to challenge them to set that time aside and think more about themselves, about the business at a higher level, and take off whatever hat they’re wearing and ask themselves some critical questions about what makes them happy, what their ideal future looks like, and get the information they need and hear other people who are in a similar situation ask questions and talk about what they’re experiencing.

What’s on your summer activity list?

My wife and I just had our first baby in the first week of April, so if you’d asked me that 10 months ago I’d have had a different answer. Our activity list includes whatever our little guy is going to allow us to do, hopefully taking him to some fun places and watching him develop. My wife’s family lives in Pittsburgh, so we’ll be taking lots of trips, I’m sure, and having family come in and visit.