Eloise Duncan, Q&A

March 2, 2020 | Blog

Eloise Duncan is the CEO and Founder of Seymour Management Consulting Inc. and Financial Health Index. She is a leading expert on financial health and for over 20 years, has worked in financial services strategy in both North America and Europe. As a female entrepreneur her passion in life is to help Canadians and their families become financially healthy and resilient by enabling Financial Institutions (FIs) and partners to better support the financial health of their customers at scale.

Seymour Consulting took the bold leap to launch Canada’s independent Financial Health Index (FHI) study back in 2017. Eloise wanted to shine a light on financial stress as a mainstream issue and provide a way to measure Canadians’ financial health, resilience and wellness, while also highlighting the business case for FIs to better support their customers. Outside of this work, Eloise also leads customized financial health innovation and impact projects for a range of segments of the population including women, business owners, millennials and the underserved.

As the woman behind Canada’s leading independent authority on consumer financial health, Eloise is growing her practice and partnerships so that banking and financial services support and advice can be better and people can lead their best lives. She strongly believes that financial health and resilience is good for all – individuals, communities, businesses and the economy.

The DUCA Impact Lab (DIL) caught up with Eloise to hear more about her work, the trends she’s seeing around financial health , and what excites her about the future in this space.

1. To start, could you provide a brief summary of why you founded the Financial Health Index as a division of Seymour Consulting, and how you aim to create impact?

Canada has the highest levels of consumer debt among G20 countries. Yet before the Financial Health Index (FHI) study, there was a gap in any longitudinal research to measure, track and better understand the financial health, resilience and stress of Canadians. Traditional measures of success – such as net worth, product sales, NPS or credit scores – don’t tell the full story around what Canadians are experiencing in their financial lives, or the impact on their overall well-being. With the FHI Study, we want to fill the gap and spark an increased focus on financial health by institutions that can have impact. We do this by measuring many aspects, including consumers’ level of financial stress over current and future obligations; confidence levels in being able to weather financial stressors from unplanned life events; consumer and financial behaviours; financial and debt stressors;  liquid savings buffers; the extent to which consumers feel their primary FI supports their financial wellness, and the business benefits of financial institutions better supporting their customers’ financial wellness. All of these aspects are covered in the FHI studies, with annual tracking to help us identify trends, build accountability and highlight opportunities for improved support – while recognizing that consumers are ultimately in charge of their financial health. Our FHI study demonstrates how money worries and financial stress have a real impact on peoples’ overall well-being, including their emotional and physical health; productivity at work; relationships and the extent to which they isolate themselves.

Our data and work also validates that FIs working hard to improve their customers’ financial wellness have deeper, more profitable customer relationships. Our data allows FIs, and other organizations, to measure the financial health, resilience – and vulnerability – of their customers, and compare these to our trending data from 2017, as well as national and provincial benchmark data. Policymakers and other organizations – such as employers – also leverage our consumer financial health insights to develop or modify their policies and programs, in order to provide more meaningful support to individuals, families, small business owners and communities, across different life stages.

2. Has the FHI study inspired action from financial service providers, community groups or governments to improve the financial health of Canadians?

Yes, we’re definitely seeing increased momentum in the financial health and behavioural finance space. Traditional and non-traditional FIs, and others, are increasing their focus on financial health research, measurement and innovation. For example, the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC) developed a five-year financial well-being study in 2018 and organizations like Prosper Canada are continuing to lead great work for the financial well-being of the underserved. Many credit unions, big banks like TD, and credit counselling agencies are also increasing their focus and impact in this area. There’s also exciting research and work happening in the behavioural finance space here in Canada, through organizations like BEAR.

Collaborative innovation is starting to happen, through organizations like our collaborative partner Innovate Financial Health. Fintechs and alternative providers, like Intuit and Paypal, are making significant investments in financial health, as highlighted by Intuit’s planned acquisition of Credit Karma just a couple of weeks ago. And leading journalists, such as Rob Carrick in The Globe and Mail, are now convinced that financial stress is one of Canada’s biggest social problems. Finally, leading academics and organizations around the world are sharing knowledge and research in the area of financial capability, resilience and well-being with us, which is exciting to help accelerate best practices and research globally.

3. You gather both quantitative and qualitative data through the Financial Health Index study and your customized projects, could you explain why this approach is important?

In terms of making strategic investments, financial institutions and other organizations really need to be able to see data-driven trends to make decisions. With that being said, stories and deep customer insights – including around peoples’ financial stressors, unplanned life events causing financial hardship; areas of vulnerability, life and financial goals, and where they need more support from their FIs – are incredibly powerful. When you link the data to a person and their family, that’s where this whole construct of financial well-being really comes alive. Through our analysis we’re also able to highlight the ‘so what?’ for the organizations we work with, so they can translate the insights into strategies, new products and services, and action plans that transform the way they engage and support their customers.

4. What trends have you seen around the financial health, wellness and resilience of Canadians since you first launched the study in 2017?

Unfortunately, we’re seeing financial stress levels rise and financial resilience levels become more challenged. This was before the coronavirus hit the world globally, so we’re sure that indicators in our 2020 annual study will be more challenged. Even Canadians with high household incomes and good to excellent credit scores have increasingly challenged financial resilience, with more challenges for people experiencing income volatility, going through a life event such as a divorce etc.

There are also concerning trends in terms of more Canadians relying on credit for everyday expenses, and feeling stressed because of higher living costs, housing unaffordability and other non-controllable factors impacting their financial health. Peoples’ liquid savings buffers are low and many struggle with their levels of debt. Savings rates are concerningly low, and many Canadians struggle to get through the day-to-day, with little capacity to manage their financial wellness for the medium- to long-term, let alone planning for retirement. Many Canadians also don’t know who to turn to for financial help or advice, and/or feel that they are not well supported by their primary FI. And those Canadians who are most challenged and need the most help, unfortunately feel the least supported.

Note: The FHI study has four years of longitudinal data and is conducted annually, typically using a sample size of 5000 Canadians across the country. It looks at multiple indicators of financial health, resilience and wellness in line with Seymour’s proprietary framework, which spans the financial services spectrum of daily financial management; borrowing and credit; protection and insurance; and saving, planning and investing. Key findings can be found in the study’s white papers.

5. What excites you about DUCA's Impact Lab and other innovation happening across Canada to support Canadians' financial health and resilience?

Macro global shocks such as the coronavirus, and trends such as low employment combined with low inflation and wage growth are examples of how financial stressors and shocks can seriously impact financial health and resilience. All of this has an important knock-on effect on families, businesses, future generations and our economy.  Finding creative ways to help reduce financial hardship, and improve the financial resilience of Canadians, is critical for our country. It’s also critical to DUCA’s work, and the research undertaken by its Impact Lab.

DUCA Credit Union provides a great example of the leadership organizations can take to very intentionally support the underserved, including those struggling with debt, newcomers to Canada, or small business owners, while also fostering collaborative innovation to support consumers’ financial health. I’m excited about DUCA’s commitment here, through its Impact Lab.

6. There are some similarities in the findings between the DIL and Angus Reid study and your FHI studies, which makes sense given that you supported DIL in developing the research plan for the study in line with their mission and focus. From your perspective, what are some of the challenges and opportunities facing Canadians and the ecosystem, based on both studies?

The two studies were designed to not duplicate each other. The FHI Study launched in 2017 focuses on consumer and financial health sentiments, challenges and behaviours from a holistic perspective. The DIL and Angus Reid study is more of a ‘one point in time’ study that focuses on fair banking and the debt stress of borrowers. It also provides fascinating validation around challenges from the lender perspective, based on interviews with over 250 Canadian employees who currently work, or have worked in the last two years, at a credit union, bank, fintech, lending company or private lending organization.

Both studies highlight that financial stress, and debt stress, are real problems with negative effects on overall health and well-being. They also highlight that there’s room for improvement in terms of lenders, financial institutions and the wider ecosystem providing the right information, advice, products and services, that ultimately support individuals’ and households’ financial health – and enable them to achieve their life and financial goals. This is also validated through many of the deep consumer interviews we have with our clients’ customers across the country, supporting the development of targeted innovation projects and new products and services, focused on consumers’ financial health and a better banking experience.

7. Finally, what's exciting to you about the increased momentum of financial health innovation you're seeing Canada?

It’s exciting to see a growing commitment and investment among organizations in the private and public sector that are working to improve the financial health and well-being of Canadians: including students, employees, female business owners, low income households, newcomers to Canada and those who are debt-stressed. We’re seeing a shift in the conversation from financial literacy to financial health and an increased focus on organization’s getting clearer around their corporate social purpose and impact not only on customers, but employees, partners, and communities.

We’re also seeing more organizations realize the value in better supporting small businesses, including owners’ personal financial health, as engines of our economy. More parents, like myself, are now speaking up about the gap in financial education in schools. More employers are recognizing the need to focus on their employees’ financial health and wellness, as this impacts engagement and productivity. Universities like UBC are looking at the affordability challenges faced by their students, and overall there’s a lot more focus on mental health. As well, it’s exciting to be part of this innovation with the partners and clients we work with. The DUCA Impact Lab is doing innovative and targeted research, based on the premise that we need to ask new questions, test and learn, and measure success and outcomes in impactful ways, and doing so in partnership needs to include different perspectives in order to achieve scalable impact.

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