More companies offer cash for getting money-smart

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For help managing—and improving—your finances, you may want to make the HR department your first stop.

Companies are increasingly focused on employees' financial wellness. And it's not all about retirement. Some 64 percent of large employers now offer help planning for health-care costs, up from 46 percent who said they did so in 2013, according to the 2015 Workplace Benefits Report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, released today. (Tweet This) The report found that budgeting help is on offer at 40 percent of companies, up from 21 percent. And 43 percent of employers offer information on managing debt, up from 22 percent.

Additional programs are on the way. More than 90 percent of 250 large companies surveyed by benefits consulting firm Aon Hewitt said they plan to introduce or expend financial wellness programs this year. The U.S. Government Accountability Office and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have also encouraged efforts to improve financial wellness among employees.

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In the Bank of America Merrill Lynch report, 90 percent of companies said they expect financial wellness to be a "standard element" of benefits packages within the next decade. In part, that's because employers think they benefit, too, saying in the survey such perks lead to employees who are more satisfied, loyal, engaged and productive. "This is almost the umbrella over everything else, and they have to get their employees to engage," said Kevin Crain, head of retirement solutions for Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Better still, a quarter of employers said they offer, or are considering offering, incentives to encourage employee participation in office financial wellness programs.

Of those who offer an incentive, 29 percent give cash or gift cards and 14 percent, provide points toward rewards. Another 11 percent award discounts on health insurance premiums or other products. "I think that's going to be a very interesting trend to watch," said Crain. He likens it to the cash many employers now offer for taking an annual health screening, or a small-scale version of a 401(k) employer match.

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"I've been hoping something will come along in this space that's effective," said Ted Beck, president and chief executive for the National Endowment for Financial Education. "This is very, very positive." Financial education is important for workers, particularly as more of the burden of health care and retirement planning falls on their shoulders. But companies have historically been reluctant to offer help, he said, both because their return on that investment is uncertain and due to liability concerns over offering employees investment advice.

As financial wellness programs expand, employees can expect to see more targeting based on their age and other needs, said Crain. "You can't broad-brush anymore this idea of financial wellness," he said. Most of the time, employers convey financial wellness help through online tools, seminars or literature. But 46 percent of large companies provide one-on-one access to a financial advisor, according to the Bank of America Merrill Lynch report.

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Regardless of format, vet the information, said Deena Katz, a professor of personal financial planning at Texas Tech University. Presenters should have expertise and credentials in the field on which they're advising you, and ideally, not have an interest in selling you a particular product or service. "Make sure there's no strings attached," she said.