All it took was a few years working in the exclusive private client group at Merrill Lynch for Shannon McLay to recognize some vast gaps in service when it comes to traditional financial planning.
McLay, founder and chief executive of the Financial Gym, which is geared toward bringing financial planning down to the retail consumer level, recalls not being able to work with any clients at Merrill unless they had at least $250,000 to invest.
“I wasn’t allowed to take a meeting with anyone until I knew they had at least $250,000, but I didn’t know how to ask people what was in their bank account before having coffee with them, so I just took every meeting,” she said. “I learned there are a lot of people with less than $250,000 who need help with their finances.”
Thus, the Financial Gym was launched in 2013 with the basic objective of providing financial guidance to the masses in a way McLay compares to the old-style community banks providing personal services before ATMs eliminated the need for personal banking interactions.
While McLay embraces the nostalgic analogy of the Financial Gym as a kind of modern-day community bank, she admits the practical application is more like a hybrid of a health club membership and Weight Watchers program.
Memberships, which start around $85 a month and require a three-month minimum commitment, begin with a “financially naked session,” during which members share their entire financial situation with a “trainer,” also referred to as a BFF (best financial friend).
“We find out where you’re at financially,” McLay said.
Within a week, members are presented with a 20-page report “that’s written in English to explain what you need to do,” she added.
Among the things McLay is trying to address is the general fear of financial matters, which often leads to avoidance, which often leads to problems.
“We’ve had clients come into the gym with stacks of envelopes they don’t want to open because they’re scared,” she said. “We know that 98% of people experience financial anxiety, even people in good financial health can experience that anxiety.”
As McLay openly discusses on her podcast, the Financial Gym was not an instant success and has faced financial challenges when getting the business off the ground, but it now has physical locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.
The business employs 52 trainers and serves roughly 3,000 clients.
While Financial Gym trainers go through three months of training on working with clients and using the proprietary software programs to build financial plans and household budgets, they are not registered investment advisers or necessarily holders of any financial planning credentials.
“We have a training program that is better than the CFP program because we get into things like credit card debt, student loan debt and budgeting,” McLay said. “We fall under an exemption rule that applies to teachers, lawyers and accountants. Under the Advisory Act, you don’t have to register as adviser if investment advice is not the main focus of what you do.”
On the matter of trainer qualifications and backgrounds, McLay stands by her training program and eagerly presents that question back to anyone asking about her trainers.
“How do you know about the background and qualifications of any adviser?” she said. “I worked with guys at Merrill Lynch who were selling cars before they went through the Merrill Lynch training program.”
Samantha Russell, chief evangelist at FNG Suite, said the Financial Gym is distinct from the broader financial services industry in just about everything it does.
“The Financial Gym is a financial planning firm that is set up differently from many other advisory firms we typically see, and their marketing is incredibly different and so good, as well,” Russell said. “Unlike many other financial advisers, they don’t manage money or sell investments. They focus on education and financial empowerment; things like budgeting, debt reduction strategies, negotiating a raise, building emergency funds, and retirement planning analysis with 401(k) guidance. Thus, they work with many individuals and families that typical financial advisory firms don’t work with because so many firms still get paid by AUM, meaning if the firm isn’t managing your money, they can’t take you on as a client.”
McLay doesn’t pull punches when crediting the current state of financial services for creating an opening for her business model.
“The financial services industry should be called the financial products industry, because the only way they make money is by selling you a product,” she said. “Meanwhile, 78% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck and the financial services industry wants to give you an app to use.”
McLay recalls having to turn people away at Merrill Lynch because they didn’t have enough money and becoming frustrated with not having anywhere to send them.
“People don’t know who those advisers are who work with smaller accounts, because they’re difficult to find,” she said. “At Merrill Lynch, I asked if they knew where I could send people to be treated like human beings. I didn’t see anything out there. And here we are eight years later, and I still don’t see it anywhere.”
Megan Carpenter, chief executive at FiComm Partners, said the Financial Gym business model is filling a need not being met by “old school financial advisers.”
“Most of the industry will read about Financial Gym and roll their eyes, which validates the huge opportunity Shannon McLay has in front of her,” Carpenter said. “They are leveraging successful new school marketing strategies to connect directly with their audiences in ways many traditional financial advisers fail to do by showing up in places their potential clients are, such as podcasts, Instagram, Pinterest and review sites, using relatable and simple language, and providing consistent educational content to build a following.
April Rudin, founder and president of The Rudin Group, said a large part of the Financial Gym’s appeal is that it is relatable to just about everyone.
“Most people don’t understand the structure of financial planning in terms of how to access it or what the fees are, but most people do understand how a gym works and the concept of a trainer and a membership,” she said. “It’s basically about self-improvement.”
McLay backs up her subtle swipe at robo-advice platforms and various forms of less-personalized financial planning efforts across the industry with programs grounded in real conversations and actual accountability.
For instance, a six-month commitment at the Financial Gym comes with a money-back guarantee, if the plan is followed, that clients will have a higher net worth, higher income and an improved credit score.
McLay said she has never had to refund anyone’s money, and that on average clients over the first six months increased their net worth by $2,500, raised their credit score by 40 points, and increased their annualized income by $5,000.
As those dollar amounts might suggest, the Financial Gym is not typically working with the mass-affluent type of clients most financial advisers are looking to recruit.
According to McLay, the Financial Gym membership is currently about 65% women and 80% of the inbound calls are from women, something she attributes to the idea that “men don’t ask for directions, so their wives and girlfriends are calling us.”
While the client base ranges from 17 to 72 years of age, McLay defined the core demographic as women between 26 and 32, making $60,000 a year.
“The incomes of our members range from zero to people making seven figures,” she said. “We also have people with zero debt up to people with seven figures worth of debt. And we have people with negative assets, and we have a number of people whose net worth is in the $8 million range.”
Because a big part of the Financial Gym model is community and accountability, there are regular social and educational events, in person and over virtual channels.
McLay said she knew she was on the right track during one event when a woman stood up and said she didn’t understand what the “markets” are that everyone is always talking about.
“She asked that question and half the room nodded their head,” McLay said. “If you don’t even know what the means, where do you go?”
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As our second lead editor, Cindy Hamilton covers health, fitness and other wellness topics. She is also instrumental in making sure the content on the site is clear and accurate for our readers. Cindy received a BA and an MA from NYU.