Death, sex and money are topics many young people have a hard time understanding. Yet Nondini Naqui, CEO and president of insurance giant MassMutual’s “Society of Grownups,” aims to remove the social stigma around the latter.
Naqui’s organization is tailored to answer all the questions about finances that millennials were afraid to ask. Aimed specifically at the under-30 crowd, the Society of Grownups works to build trust with its clients in an atmosphere that resembles the free-wheeling environment of a start-up, and refrains from selling any products—even those of its parent company.
In short, Naqui’s mission is to show millennials that personal finance is their friend.
“We want to democratize information because the complexity of the financial world can be intimidating,” she told CNBC. “Our goal is to demystify financial planning, empower young people and help level the playing field.”
The Society of Grownups is part of a new wave of financial planning, spearheaded in part by Naqui, a Wellesley College graduate with a background in both finance and nonprofit work. Clients pay a small fee to sit down with a financial planner who can field questions about retirement accounts, personal budgets or debt management.
Naqui credits some of her leadership to her time at a women’s college, saying it “gave me the understanding that it’s not unnatural for women to be in leadership positions. At Wellesley, I was surrounded by female leaders, and seeing that modeled on a daily basis gave me the confidence to go after leadership roles in my own career.”
This confidence serves her well in her current position, when, as Naqui said, “people need a reminder of my role. I’ve been asked, ‘No, who’s really in charge?'”
The playing field of financial literacy is one that desperately needs leveling, as recent surveys reveal a lack of savvy among younger workers—many of them college educated. According to a Brookings research report, 28 percent of first-year college students with federal loans didn’t know they had federal debt, while 14 percent claimed to have no debt at all.
“We expect a lot from millennials in an increasingly difficult environment. They have to worry about retirement, college costs for themselves and their children, stagnant middle-class wages and an overall pressure to succeed in an economy not working well for them,” said Joe Valenti, director of finance at the Center for American Progress.
“We need to figure out how to enable them to manage their financial lives without shaming them,” he added.
For those reasons, and several others, groups like the Society of Grownups serve a key purpose. Some of the skills the organization seeks to impart on its students may come in handy in the job market, where anecdotal evidence suggests more millennials are taking the entrepreneurial route instead of traditional jobs.
“We understand that money is not only about your bank account balance or amount of student loan debt,” said Naqui. “It’s more emotional than that—it reflects your values, your goals and who you are as a person.”
The Society of Grownups holds events that run from $20 to $40 to broach myriad financial topics with an expert. They also host “supper clubs” where financial experts lead discussions, sometimes accompanied by wine and food.
This idea of building trust is especially important with the millennial generation, particularly because many were scarred by the financial crisis and the resulting recession, experts say.
“Millennials’ first exposure to the financial market was after the 2008 crash,” said Dan Iannicola, president and CEO of the Financial Literacy Group. “Their first headlines were very negative and filled an information vacuum so the negative stereotypes, true or not, stuck.”
The financial sector has become increasingly complex with more and more choices, making it harder for the uninitiated to wrap their minds around the myriad choices. Iannicola called financial literacy “a moving target.”
He added: “We know more or less what our grandparents knew but we need to know more because we now have more choice. What was important before the crash became crucial after it.”
Yet some believe that financial education isn’t an end unto itself. “Focusing only on financial literacy and not government regulation can end up shaming the consumer. We don’t expect someone buying a car to know what’s safe so why do we assume that if everyone knew better we wouldn’t have these problems,” said Valenti of the Center for American Progress.
Yet Naqui has some advice for people intimidated by personal finance. “Be confident. You know more than you think you do, and if you don’t know it yet, believe that you can get there.”