Storytelling

The Financial Gym Is Changing the Way Consumers Learn About Money

A few years ago, I was lamenting my personal finances when a friend showed me a homemade Excel sheet he used to track his budget. Tidy, organized columns broke down monthly expenditures for housing, food, transportation, and more. Formulas auto-tabulated category totals, making it easy to see where his spending habits could improve.

I had him email me the sheet, determined to follow suit. To this day, I still haven’t opened that email.

Financial planning can be tedious and intimidating, which is why people don’t always see it through. Think of it like exercise. We know working out is important, but if you’re just beginning, it can be complicated. Which exercises should I do? How long should I do them? When do I start seeing results? Companies like Soulcycle and Orangetheory identified this opportunity and found success with classes that take the guesswork out of the process. What if a financial services company employed a similar model?

Enter the Financial Gym—a New York-based financial advisory that’s essentially Barry’s Boot Camp for your budget. With a “fitness-inspired” approach, the Financial Gym trains members on how to make smarter money decisions that add up over time.

Founder Shannon McLay spent years working for big banks, including a stint as a financial advisor for Merrill Lynch. After accomplishing her own weight loss journey, she realized that while there are many resources available to people who want to become physically fit, there are far fewer for those looking to become financially fit. In 2014, McLay helped fill this void with a book titled “Train Your Way to Financial Fitness.” A few years later, the Financial Gym was born.

“Most people understand fitness goals like training for a marathon or losing weight, but they don’t feel like they understand money,” McLay told Shape.com. “We like to say that we’re the Jillian Michaels of your money. You might not always love the hard work and sacrifices, but you’re going to love the results at the end.”

The Financial Gym office stands out from your traditional finance company. Suits and cubicles are replaced by an open floor plan dotted with young financial advisors in t-shirts. The office walls look worthy of Instagram posts.

To join the Financial Gym, members pay between $99 to $250 per month. That grants access to a certified financial trainer, with sessions either in-person or over video. In the first meeting—the “Financially Naked Session”—members are encouraged to bare all to their trainer, who then creates a custom plan tailored to each member.

“We want to know everything down to the penny—your bank account, your investments, any debt,” Sara Belhouari, a Level 2 trainer, told me. “Then we discuss your goals. Some want to save up for a ring, some want to quit their job and roam, some want to set up a physical budget or retirement plan. We’ll create a personalized plan based on your aims, and a few weeks after the Financially Naked session, you come back to the office and we present it to you.”

To keep members accountable, there are monthly check-ins and larger quarterly reviews. Clients can also email their trainer with questions at any time.

“Empowering is really the core,” Belhouari said. “If your financial journey is a road trip, we break it down into sections so it’s fully digestible. And we get that things can change, [so we] plan for that too. People aren’t numbers on a sheet, they’re people.”

Content plays a leading role in the Financial Gym’s training efforts. The company runs the Financially Free Blog, which serves as a central hub for those who want to learn more.

“Our blog posts are really the driving force of our broader content efforts,” said Caitlin Lyttle, head of marketing and client experience. “The focus is on financial education and literacy—how much to save, how to budget, what retirement vehicle is right for you. For each piece of content we make for the blog, we also create content for social channels. We’re big on infographics for Instagram. We’ve found people want visually appealing graphics that are easy to digest.”

To help those new to financial planning feel comfortable, the Financial Gym makes a point to present all of its materials in layman’s terms. “When you look at other financial sites, you see a lot of financial terms and jargon you don’t understand. ‘What’s a high-yield savings account? What’s a mutual fund?'” Lyttle said. “We help you understand every piece. We don’t want you to come in and leave more confused than you started.”

Given that the internet is flooded with generic blog posts about personal finance, the Financial Gym has made multimedia content a priority. Last April, for Financial Literacy Month, the company debuted “Gym-splain that to me,” a video series that clarifies confusing financial jargon. Lyttle told me they plan to bring it back again this year.


McLay also hosts the Martinis and Your Money Podcast, an educational podcast “combining two of her favorite activities: drinking and talking about money.” The discussions range from investing to life insurance, in a fun setting that stays true to the brand’s approachable feel.

“We’re not stuffy,” Belhouari said. “We’re your best financial friend. Shannon likes to say we’re the fun and cool H&R Block.”

To complement the content, the Financial Gym highlights this affable approach through events at the office. “We have weekly wine-and-learns, monthly open houses, bi-weekly in-person webinars,” said PR manager Emily Egan. “We’re always open to the public so you can stop by and learn more.”

The webinars are also free to join online, where viewers can watch the livestreams on the Financial Gym website and chime in virtually with questions for the presenters. “Whatever people ask us — whether during sessions or at events — we already have blog posts and podcasts that cover the topic,” Lyttle said. “It’s great to have a repository — we’ll send them existing content to further educate themselves.”

Earlier in life, I saw immense value in taking financial advice to heart, but instead chose to ignore the opportunity. This time, if the Financial Gym is kind enough to send me any materials, I’ll be sure to open the email.

Image by Tuncay GÜNDOĞDU
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