BOSTON — On a Friday night at the supper club, they swirled, sniffed and sipped at least three kinds of wine while eating local farm-to-table fare: greens, maple glazed pulled chicken with spicy tomato and mini chocolate fudge cake with peanut butter sauce.
It looked like any other wine tasting in Brookline, a wealthy suburb of Boston. But in place of cheese, the wine was paired with tidbits of financial advice.
Sommelier Liz Vilardi spoke with the group equally about vintages and investing. One diner asked how to open a retirement account; another wondered about the tax consequences of a Roth IRA versus a traditional IRA.
This wasn’t a room full of well-off investors listening to a pitch from a wealth manager. Nearly everyone was under the age of 35. In the ranks: a waitress, a computer techie and a couple of fashion bloggers. Some of them had never laid eyes on a 401(k).
Welcome to the Society of Grownups.
This unusual business, open since October, bills itself as an outlet for young adults who want to take control of their finances but who might be intimidated by the task. Organizers here are betting that young people actually want to talk about money even if they don’t have a lot of it. They’re also guessing that the lessons will go down easier if they’re served with wine.
Courses are meant to help people navigate even the less obvious financial decisions: how to know when it’s time to change jobs; tips for planning that dream vacation; questions to ask before you move in with a significant other.
They view these millennials as an independent breed, who probably wish to manage their own money – but also need to know that they’re on the right track.
“They want to figure things out on their own, but they want to have a little bit of a sounding board as well,” said Nondini Naqui, chief executive and president of the Society of Grownups, who at 35 is on the far edge of the generation she is trying to reach.
The business model is organized for a generation that’s used to consuming a la carte (think, buying one song at a time vs. the album).
Customers can pay $20 for a 20-minute session – called a checkup – with a financial planner who can help answer a question, say, about a 401(k) investment, or $100 for a deeper dive that results in a detailed to-do list for, say, improving their budgets or clearing their debts.
That night last month, Stephanie Labelle, a 23-year-old waitress looking for a full-time job in fashion, barely touched her chicken pasta meal. She was too busy jotting notes as financial planner Jena Palisoul explained compound interest. She offered two scenarios: One person invests $15 a week – about the price of a bottle of wine – starting at age 25. Another puts off saving until 35, but puts in $30 a week. Who comes out ahead?
With the power of compound interest, the 25-year-old will be able to afford a good bit more wine in retirement.
The lesson: Start early.
Reaching young investors
It’s not unusual to be young and broke. But for millennials, who came of age at the peak of the financial crisis and sluggish economic recovery, breaking out of that phase often takes longer than it did for previous generations. As they cope with meager paychecks and student-loan debt, they are pushing everything back – marriage, children, homeownership.
The industry that would help at least some of them navigate these financial milestones has struggled to bring them in. Many financial advisory firms won’t take on clients who don’t have hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of dollars in the bank. Only 30 percent of financial advisers target people under age 40, according to Corporate Insight, a financial research firm.
Not that millennials are holding their breath. Just 29 percent of people in their 20s and early 30s said they’ve received financial advice from a professional, according to a survey by Middle Tennessee State University and iQuantifi, a financial planning Web site. Most prefer help from a family member or friend.
As a group, though, millennials have considerable financial clout: They spend $200 billion a year, according to estimates from the ad agency Barkley. That amount is projected to grow as young people move up in their careers, earn bigger paychecks and inherit money from their boomer parents.
Realizing that potential, more firms are finding ways to loop young people into a financial industry they may not feel ready for – or even trust. Earlier this year, Northwestern Mutual acquired LearnVest, an online platform that pairs people with financial advisers. Online investing services known as robo-advisers, such as Betterment and Wealthfront, offer to manage money for people who don’t need that human touch.
Then there’s the Society of Grownups. The company is owned by MassMutual Life Insurance Co., which more than two years ago started researching and developing new ways to reach young investors. The insurance company sought help from Ideo, a design firm that has sought innovative solutions for a range of industries, including ways to improve education for immigrants and ideas for changing the experience of dying.
“People want to get advice in ways that may not have been available to them in the past,” said Gareth Ross, a senior vice president at MassMutual.
The team went into the project expecting to find that young people have some assets and basic knowledge about financial products.
“What we discovered was people didn’t have a lot of those things and they didn’t know what to do about their finances,” said Anna Engstrom, a senior designer and strategist at Ideo. “At that moment, we realized this is a very different opportunity.”
Together, the firms conceptualized the business model and designed the workspace, which has the familiar feel of a trendy coffee shop with brick walls, long sleek bars where people can grab coffee or a glass of wine while they wait to see a financial planner and a meeting room for the planners that feels like a friend’s cozy living room.
The slogan here, where one wall is dedicated to portraits of young people with beards or tattoos who have their heads in their hands or their faces twisted to seem as though they’re on the verge of freaking out, is “Don’t panic.”
The focus would have to be more educational than in the typical financial advisory business, Engstrom said, teaching people to think about ways money affects their lives – from negotiating a job offer to planning an affordable vacation.
These customers don’t just come in for guidance on asset building and portfolio management. The center doesn’t manage money or sell investments, and it runs independently of its parent company, MassMutual, said Naqui, who worked in consumer banking and then at a nonprofit organization before joining the Society of Grownups. (The goal isn’t to convert young people into insurance customers, she added).
Classes touch on subjects beyond the checkbook to include cooking lessons for people who are tired of eating cereal for dinner and supper clubs for couples who want to get better at talking about their finances. “There isn’t a place to open up about these issues,” Naqui said.
The a la carte menu of services is a soft sell to commitment-phobic millennials. But the team does want to build its society and hopes people will come back again and again as their financial lives evolve.
“We tried in every way to lower the barrier to entry,” said Engstrom of Ideo.
Since opening its doors in the fall, the Society of Grownups has held about 30 events a month, including chats, classes and larger public events with guest speakers. Some of the chats and classes sell out; others are canceled because not enough people sign up – pushing leaders to find ways to teach those subjects in more engaging ways. The supper clubs are popular, and more than 2,500 people have signed up for the weekly newsletter.
Ross wouldn’t say whether the company is profitable yet, only that leaders believe they’ve come up with a model that works and that they plan to build on. MassMutual is looking into opening locations in other cities. “What we’ve learned today is working incredibly well,” Ross said. “We absolutely are going to expand.”
One size does not fit all
Labelle, the server looking for a job in fashion, is exactly the type of person the society is aiming for. After graduating from Framingham State University in 2013, she moved back home to Maine to be closer to her mother, who was diagnosed with cancer. Last year, after her mother entered remission, she returned to the Boston area to look for work and landed a six-month internship reviewing and selecting materials for the New Balance shoe company.
But now, roughly six months after the internship ended, she doesn’t want the time she’s spent working in the restaurant business to leave her at a disadvantage as she looks for a new job in California.
“I don’t want them to undervalue me,” said Labelle, who has been to three events at the Society of Grownups, including a chat about negotiating pay. She appreciates hearing advice from a professional closer to her age. “They tell you what to say, they tell you what to ask for.”
Across from her at dinner was Gregory Wong, a 26-year-old telecom worker who asked about his 401(k) match. Some of the advice that night was basic, he said, but it was nice to hear it again: “It’s a reminder that I’m not saving enough.”
But his girlfriend, Samantha Ly, presents a different sort of challenge. Some young people, even if they are just starting out, will want more – someone to take control for them.
“What would be more helpful for me would be for someone to hold my hand and do it for me,” said Ly, 27.
Naqui said the classes and services are best tailored for people who want to maintain control of their finances but want to talk about whether they could be doing more – to improve their retirement savings, boost their earnings potential or just not screw it up when they move in with a significant other.
“We’re here to help people navigate adulthood successfully,” Naqui said. “There is something very freeing about the idea that ‘guess what, not everybody has this figured out and put together.’ ”
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