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Thursday, July 23, 2020

Financial wellness surveys: A step-by-step guide

Financial wellness surveys

Surveys are an important building block of any financial wellness program but need to be done correctly to deliver the best results.

  • Personal and confidential
  • Quantitative questions
  • Use responses to personalize content
  • Report results (and progress) during plan reviews

You have established that financial wellness should be another component of your retirement plan advisory business. You may have clients asking about it or are already providing a program to them. If you do not have a solution in place you may be exploring your options which include financial wellness software solutions (including Wallet1000), leveraging the recordkeeping platform that your clients are already paying for, or possibly creating or licensing financial wellness content that you provide participants. Each option has its pros and cons.

No matter which solution(s) you choose there are ways to supplement the service. Specifically, using surveys as part of your sales process and as part of your financial wellness program.

Table of contents

Types of surveys

Financial wellness surveys typically fall into two buckets. Prospect surveys, which you can use as part of your sales process, and program surveys, which you incorporate into your education.

Prospect survey

When you are offering financial wellness as an additional or standalone service (rather than including it in the cost of your retirement plan services) you might find human resources interested in it but that they question the ROI or whether their employees will engage with the program. They don’t want to pay for a program that their employees don’t need or won’t use.

You can create a survey that they provide to their employees to gauge whether financial wellness is a priority, a benefit they would utilize, and where they need the most help (topics to cover). Aggregate the results and provide them to the plan sponsor in a nicely formatted report to take the proposal process to the next step.

Program survey

A survey as part of your financial wellness offering is helpful no matter what solution (software, recordkeeping, content, or coaching) you choose. It can help provide a baseline to measure improvement against (the effectiveness of the program) at both an individual level and in aggregate.

For individual participants, the surveys can help you personalize the content and coaching you provide so that each participant is receiving relevant and actionable information rather than content that is of little to no use. (One of my biggest pet peeves is recordkeepers sending out information about catch-up contributions to all participants including the younger participants that are decades from being eligible for them as well as eligible participants who are nowhere near maxing out their contributions.)

Survey questions

Your aim with the survey shapes what questions to include. Measuring interest is different from measuring progress which is different from using the survey as the first step of the educational process. Be deliberate when choosing questions.

Short vs. long surveys

The number of questions to ask depends on the type of survey (prospect/participant) and how you are going to be using the results.

The shorter the survey the more likely participants are to fill it out. For prospect surveys, three to five questions are enough to gauge participant interest. A few questions are also fine if you are using the survey to measure the impact that your program is having on a group of participants. (In larger plans, looking at survey results based on age brackets can yield additional insights for you and the plan sponsor.)

If you are using the survey to shape the program or as part of the coaching process, you will want to ask more questions that can provide you more data as well as allow you to provide more actionable advice to your participants.

Quantitative vs. qualitative questions

Qualitative questions about personal finances can help you understand where someone needs help but rarely yield enough information to provide personalized content or advice. You will know there is a problem but will not have enough context about the individual’s specific situation to hone in on a solution.

I prefer asking quantitative questions that yield more insight into the participant’s personal finances so that I am able to provide personalized and actionable, rather than generic, content. The downside is that quantitative questionnaires are inevitable longer than qualitative ones.

If you ask qualitative questions (e.g. how you feel about your personal finances) rather than quantitative questions (e.g. how much non-mortgage debt to you have) you should still ask in a quantitative manner (e.g. on a scale of 1 (being the worst) to 10 (being the best) how do you feel about your personal finances?). This allows you to report to plan sponsors on the effectiveness of your program when you do follow-up surveys.


If you are using surveys to measure improvement then you have to ask the exact same questions each time you send out the survey otherwise you are not getting a true apples-to-apples comparison.

Ensure your data integrity by spending the time upfront to really think through your questions and make sure you get them exactly right.

Sample survey questions

Here are examples of the types of questions you might ask in a survey. Most of them require a quantitative answer with which you can measure progress over time.

  • On a scale of 1 (stressed) to 5 (great), how do you feel about your finances?

  • What are the three things you need the most help with?
    • Buying a home
    • College planning
    • Credit score
    • Debt
    • Emergency savings
    • Estate planning
    • Health care
    • Insurance
    • Investing
    • Retirement planning
    • Student loans
    • Other
  • How much non-mortgage debt do you have?

  • How many months of expenses do you have in your emergency savings?

  • What is your credit score?

  • Do you have a will?

  • How much life insurance do you have?

  • What is your total household retirement savings?

  • How much is your household saving towards retirement every month?

  • Are you contributing to an HSA (if you are eligible for one)?

  • How old are you?

How to conduct a survey

Depending on the type of survey you are conducting you need to decide if it is going to be anonymous or not. Some considerations:


  • Pros:
    • Often participants will be more comfortable filling out a survey about their personal finances anonymously.
  • Cons:
    • You cannot provide any individual with any helpful content or coaching based on their anonymous answers.
    • You cannot measure individual progress which hampers your ability to determine the effectiveness of the program.

Confidential (ask for personal info):

  • Pros:
    • You can compare the individual’s responses to their previous responses to quantify their progress.
    • You can provide content that is targeted to their needs.
  • Cons:
    • People can be reluctant to share personal information resulting in fewer responses.

If you are only going to report in aggregate (e.g. a survey gauging interest in a program) then an anonymous survey works. Otherwise, a personal survey will provide you with more useful information and allow you to better help and serve your participants.

Regardless of the type of survey, you should reiterate to the participants that their responses will not be provided to their employer except in aggregate.

Conducting the survey

Once you have finished your planning it is time to get the survey into the hands of your participants. You will use survey software to create the survey and gather responses and then distribute the link to the survey via email.

Survey software

To conduct a survey you can use free software such as Google Forms, Microsoft Forms, or paid solutions such as Formstack or Survey Monkey. You have more ability to white label the survey with the paid solutions but a lot of the additional functionality might not be needed.

One feature that the more expensive software has that is useful is that it can track opens and form fills and automatically resend the survey to anyone who has not completed it. Anyone who has had an email buried in their inbox knows that a reminder email can be helpful.

Test your survey internally before distributing it.

A word of warning: make sure that you are not enabling any features that aggregate the results and show them to the survey respondents when they complete it.

Survey distribution

Distribute the survey via email–ideally sent by the company’s management or HR department. An internal champion for financial wellness that the employees know and respect can make a program a success. Leverage that resource.

The email should tout the benefit the participant receives from filling out the survey. “Based on your confidential responses our financial wellness coaches will send you the resources that have helped thousands of people build a budget, get out of debt, buy a home, pay for college, and successfully fund their retirement.”

When to survey

The first participant survey should be sent prior to the program start. This gives you a baseline from which you can measure and report on progress to the plan sponsor. This also provides you with the specific goals or concerns that a participant has so that you can send them targeted content. (We use automated email software such as Drip for this.)

There should be a regular cadence for follow-up surveys thus the next time you out a survey would be six months (after the participant has received content or advice and had a chance to act on it) or twelve months later.

A typical financial wellness program launch might be:

  • Initial survey
  • Financial wellness ebook
  • Budgeting and worksheets
  • Financial wellness software
  • Email courses
  • Meeting(s)
  • Second survey

Reporting results

During plan reviews, the survey results might be the most interesting topic covered. Plan sponsors love to hear that their participants are making progress.

You might incorporate the survey results with other retirement plan metrics such as the number of meetings, participant engagement rate, and retirement readiness rate. Spend time designing this section of your presentation in a visually appealing manner.

Financial wellness content

A survey is a great tool on which to start building your financial wellness program, but it is just a first step. It does not provide much value by itself. Rather, it guides the creation of financial wellness content that will provide your participants the means to achieve their financial goals.

Building an effective program takes time but, no matter what software you end up using, having a system in place to capture information from participants will help.

Will Johnson

Positive Participant Outcomes

Take your participant education to a new level with this free course about guiding participants to positive outcomes.