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  • Writer's pictureJohn San Filippo

The Evolution of a Financial Wellness CUSO

By John San Filippo

In 2012, Vernon Hills, Ill.-based Baxter Credit Union, which prefers to be known as BCU, launched a financial literacy program called “Life. Money. You.” The $6 billion, 350,000-member institution serves several Fortune 100 companies, including Target, United Health Group and Boston Scientific, and also has a community charter for six counties in northern Illinois. It was at the request of these larger organizations that Life. Money. You. was formed.

In the ensuing years, the program evolved from a focus on financial literacy to a focus on more well-rounded financial wellness; and from a internal initiative at BCU to a CUSO that is now poised to begin serving other credit unions and their members. Bjorn Larson has been the executive director of the program since 2019. Finopotamus spoke with Larson to learn more about the program and its increasing reliance on technology.

The Financial Literacy Focus

According to Larson, BCU’s journey with the Life. Money. You. program is reflective of the changes in the industry’s approach to financial wellness . He noted that in 2012 when the program launched, most credit unions that had financial wellness programs were focused on financial literacy.

Bjorn Larson

“We were doing webinars, lunch-and-learns, and that was mainly driven by what our companies were asking for,” said Larson. “They were looking for that, so we were providing that. But we realized we needed to scale it because the companies we serve have employees all over the country working all kinds of jobs and can't, for example, come to a lunch-and-learn.”

At that point, Life. Money. You. partnered with financial literacy provider Enrich Financial Wellness to provide members with what Larson calls “scalable digital content” – content that can be consumed by anyone, anywhere, anytime. That’s a partnership that is still in place today.

Beyond Education to Consultation

“We realized that you can't just do literacy. You can't just do education,” said Larson. “So in 2017, we started to look at adding financial counseling.” He said that this initiative was in line with the credit union’s new purpose statement of “empowering people to discover financial freedom.”

Larson explained that rather than hire financial counselors, the credit union opted to train its own member-facing employees through CUNA’s Financial Counseling Certification Program (FiCEP). An employee who voluntarily completes the program is designated as a Certified Credit Union Financial Counselor (CCUFC).

“That's blossomed very nicely into a group of over 100 financial counselors that work in the branches, but also do financial coaching as part of their job,” said Larson. He explained that employees who complete the program continue with their existing job functions while also assisting members with financial counseling. CUNA reports that credit unions with just one CCUFC have seen measurable drops in delinquency rates.

Measuring Success

“When I took over 2019, I wanted to take our measurement and our scalability up a few notches,” continued Larson. “So I worked with the Financial Health Network to bring in their FinHealth Score toolkit and its survey to help measure financial health.” He added that program developed tools within digital banking to offer a financial health dashboard for members.

“When the pandemic hit,” noted Larson, “we were majorly poised to be ready for that demand [for financial wellness assistance]. Our companies were asking for it. They wanted events, they wanted tools, they wanted to push it much harder. That took it up several notches in terms of what we were doing and the number of people that were taking advantage of it.”

It’s at that point that the credit union decided to form a limited liability company and spin Life. Money. You. into a CUSO, enabling Larson to “take [the program] to new places.”

There’s an App for That

It was shortly thereafter that Larson identified the next logical step in his program’s evolution: a mobile financial wellness app to help members monitor and improve their financial state. The CUSO initially looked at developing its own financial wellness app, but instead chose to partner with Paperwork to deploy a customized version of that company’s mobile app, which the CUSO calls “MoneyTracks.”

Larson told Finopotamus that his development team had already started work on a proprietary app when the credit union’s head of digital saw a demo of the “Paperwork” product at a fintech showcase and realized how similar that product was to the vision already in place for MoneyTracks.

“It was kind of unbelievable,” said Larson of the similarities between his vision for MoneyTracks and the existing Paperwork product. “It was almost exactly the vision that I had of what we could be someday. But they were already three years ahead of us. They already had the solution. They were already working with credit unions. And so it just made a lot of sense to pivot and buy versus build.”

Added Larson, “We started working with Paperwork late fall of 2022. We took their out-of-the-box solution and then we semi-customized it, adding our coaches and the user credit score to their solution to have our own solution.” The app is live and available for both Android and iOS, he added.

“That's the whole idea of going digital – being able to reach a very broad audience,” explained Larson. “It’s what our company partners are looking for. They have employees who work in stores, distribution centers, call centers, medical facilities, et cetera. They're not sitting at a computer all day, but they have a mobile phone. They can get access to the tools that we were historically only offering to BCU members.” He clarified that all employees of partner companies, even non-members, are welcome to participate in Life. Money. You.


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