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Pie chart showing 1/3 highlighted with the letter 'L'Your employees have beliefs and concerns that keep them from participating in savings plans. Listening is key to understanding how you can help.

There are many reasons employees don't enroll in savings plans. Younger workers may feel it is too soon to worry about retirement. Lower-income employees may feel they don't make enough to put any aside. Some employees may be intimidated by online enrollments. And employees at different life stages may prioritize other goals, such as saving for a home or a child's education.

Before you can begin to address your employees' concerns and change mistaken beliefs, you need to learn what they are. The best way to do that is by listening to your employees firsthand.

TLC Timeline

  • Weeks 8-15: Conduct focus groups/interviews 
  • Weeks 16-21: Survey employees on barriers 
  • Weeks 22-24: Compile what you have learned

Four Ways to Listen

We recommend four ways to "hear" employees' thoughts on savings plans.

  1. Observation in a setting like new-employee orientation lets you gather information without influencing responses.

  2. Focus Groups are an efficient way to get multiple opinions. The momentum of group discussions also can put people at ease and help them speak freely.  Resource: Suggested focus group questions

  3. One-on-One Interviews are the most time-intensive, but they also present the best opportunity to get to the heart of beliefs, feelings and behavior in great detail. Resource: Suggested interview questions

  4. Surveys offer a quick way to widely gather information that you can easily quantify. Employees also may feel more comfortable completing an anonymous survey compared to answering questions in person.

Resource: Use the "Barriers to Saving" Survey 1 and "Barriers to Saving" Survey 2 as is, or as a starting point for your own.

Principles at Work

Involve the Customer

Powerful commercial companies and top ad agencies don't succeed by chance—they succeed by diligently discovering what their target audiences think and want.

Social marketing takes that strategy and uses it to understand what motivates people and what presents barriers to personal change. When you listen carefully to the people you want to reach, you discover how you can best help them.

Quick & Easy TLC

Scale back: Use just one or two listening methods instead of all four; examine your company structure to determine which methods will be easiest to implement.

Observation works well if you have frequent employee training or orientation groups Focus groups work well for work groups in a single location if management will support employees taking 1to 2 hours off during the day One-on-one interviews work well when time is not a factor Surveys work well if they are easy to distribute, collect, tabulate and analyze

Materials: Use the questions and survey templates developed from the NEFE-funded research, available in this booklet and at

Advanced TLC

  • Use all four listening methods
  • Use what you learn in focus groups and interviews to guide what you ask in your wide-circulation "Barriers to Savings" survey. 
  • Increase the number of participants for each of the methods

"What's all this about?"

When you begin the TLC approach, your employees may wonder why they are being asked to participate in focus groups, take surveys or agree to one-on-one interviews. Explanations can be as simple as:

  • "We want to better understand the kinds of challenges people face when it comes to savings plans, so we figured the best way to find out is to ask!"
  • "We know there are lots of reasons people decide to start a savings plan or wait to save for retirement later. We'd like to hear those reasons firsthand so that we can give employees better options and information."
  • "We know we can do better with the information we provide on our savings plans, and we think the first step is to find out what's really on employees' minds when it comes to plans and savings in general. We want to know what you really think."

You also may want to provide assurance of confidentiality or anonymity to encourage more participation.

NEFE Research

Through focus groups, interviews and surveys, the NEFE-funded research identified three primary reasons the employee groups in the study didn't participate in savings plans.

Not Enough Clear Information 
Many employees reported that they didn't have enough information about how to save and didn't feel they could make smart choices. Many felt overwhelmed by the prospect of planning for retirement and indicated they didn't know where to start.

Not Enough Income
Both men and women reported feeling they did not make enough money to effectively save. This was especially true among lower-income employees, but even higher-income female employees indicated lack of income as a barrier to saving.

Not Enough Self-Discipline
Except for cases of auto-enrollment, savings plans require someone to deliberately take action and sign up; poor self-discipline and procrastination can interfere with even the best of intentions. Many employees indicated that even in hypothetical situations they prefer to do nothing now, keep all their income and start saving at "some later date."

In addition, the research identified several other common barriers to enrolling in savings plans, some closely related to those above:

  • "I don't have the time" 
  • "I don't know where to put my money" 
  • "Those plans aren't for people like me" 
  • "I don't know how much to save" 
  • "Too many other expenses pop up" 
  • "I have too much debt to save anything" 
  • "I don't have a computer" 
  • "I don't know how to use the plan website"

Avoidable Roadblocks

The research revealed that some organizations asked employees to make choices about participating in a savings plan before they had received their first paychecks and knew the amount of their take-home pay.

In other instances, employees went online to complete plan enrollment and discovered that the website session maxed out at 20 minutes for security reasons. If they had gathered some information and made some decisions in advance, they could have completed the enrollment process in time.

Does your organization inadvertently set up roadblocks to enrollment? As you listen to employee concerns and work to increase plan participation, think through your enrollment process and materials carefully, looking for "snags" that may make signing up difficult or frustrating for employees.

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