What Is Financial Wellbeing?

Social Determinants of Finance graphic

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, financial wellbeing is a state of being wherein a person can fully meet current and ongoing financial obligations, can feel secure in their financial future, and is able to make choices that allow them to enjoy life.

What’s the Problem?

To say that navigating the opaque and complex financial system can be challenging is not giving the problem is full due. Much like physical wellbeing, the problem with creating and maintaining financial wellbeing is not just the complexity of the financial world, but in every aspect of it – from payment to delivery systems, from access to services to affordability of products, from integration of incompatible systems to system-wide inequities. When it comes to financial wellbeing, customers struggle with basic necessities like housing, transportation, a stable paycheck and access to insurance to protect themselves and their families. Additionally, when financial struggles are at their worst, consumers are hit with large overdraft fees and high interest rates for credit.

As a result, millions of Americans are stressed, in debt, living paycheck to paycheck, have little to no savings, and don’t feel like they will ever reach their financial goals. Plus, structural barriers are almost always unfairly skewed toward people of color, women, and low-income families.

What Are “Social Determinants of Finance”?

Social determinants of finance are the environmental, organizational, social, individual, and demographic factors that influence financial wellbeing.

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Why Are Social Determinants of Finance” Important?

Consider health and social determinants of health. It’s easier to understand how individuals’ health is influenced by social, environmental, organizational and policy level factors. For example, if the area where they live has limited public transportation, they may be more likely to miss medical appointments. The high cost of medications or health services may affect their access to and use of them, which may further worsen conditions, etc.

Mad*Pow mapped the “social determinants of finance” to bring the same lens and understanding of the problem to financial wellbeing.

When we look at financial wellbeing holistically, it helps us connect the dots and then design solutions that address the root causes and not just the symptoms. Financial wellbeing isn’t as simple as “giving up your daily latte habit” or “sticking to a budget.” It is also not made of objective financial indicators only. Individual financial experiences, personality traits, financial goals and confidence in achieving them, financial behaviors, life events, and access to financial systems are equally, if not more important, for achieving financial wellbeing.

When the whole person is examined, it becomes clear that the social determinants of finance play into his/her financial wellbeing, whether it is through high taxes, lack of public transit options, predatory lenders, or unclear financial information. An example of this is a four-person, middle income family who are college educated and own a home. Aside from the daily expenses of life, such as food, this family has to juggle a monthly mortgage payment, student loans, and retirement planning. The statistics say that people often don’t have enough money to cover their day-to-day bills and expenses, let alone plan for retirement or other unexpected events.

What Is Mad*Pow Doing to Address Financial Wellbeing?

Mad*Pow uses design principles and a systematic approach to address financial wellbeing – not just to affect individuals’ behavior, but to find ways that organizations and the community can support improved wellbeing. Two large organizations of note recently worked with Mad*Pow to address financial wellbeing – the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Walmart.

Key Insights from Mad*Pow’s Research:

  1. Financial stress and instability can occur regardless of income. 
  2. Those struggling do not have a good sense of what would most help their situations, and they are unsure about where to turn if an unexpected financial crisis occurs. 
  3. The timing of paydays, bill due dates, holidays or milestone life events, as well as unexpected events and irregular swings in take-home pay, weigh heavily on financial decisions and where money is allocated, and make it hard to plan or budget effectively.
  4. Recent research demonstrates that many people report living paycheck to paycheck and rarely having money left over at the end of the month.
  5. 40% of adults would be unable to pay an unexpected $400 expense with available funds.[1]
  6. 65% of people do not believe they have enough saved for retirement.

Example 1:

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau wanted to safeguard U.S. Armed Forces from financial harm by creating a game that would coach recruits toward responsible financial wellbeing.

For many recruits, their enlistment may be their first steady salary. Pair that with the significant delay that some enlisted personnel experience before service training starts and young recruits not experienced in money management can fall victim to unwise financial practices — purchasing items they can’t afford, taking out risky loans, and falling prey to “special deals” targeted directly at them.

  • Our strategic and research-based approach helped define project goals, target audiences, and program strategy.
  • The team determined the need for a game that reflected the interests of recruits, typical financial temptations they might encounter, and a variety of scenarios reflecting the “shades of grey” success they might experience in complex, real-world financial situations.
  • We created a game with a car-buying scenario, using engaging, graphic novel-style visuals. The game includes ruthless sales personnel who use common and unfair lending practices to drain the player’s financial resources. Players navigate the car-buying process by choosing their own responses to sales come-ons, print and online advertising, and peer pressure. Bases on their responses, the game coaches the recruit on how to make better consumer choices and avoid bad deals. The recruit can then replay the situation, make different choices and continue to refine his or her financial skills. 
  • As recruits successfully complete a scenario, they unlock additional financial tools and education to aid them in the “real world” outside of the app.

The game developed by Mad*Pow is now a required element of the U.S. Army’s core boot camp training. Read more about the case study.

Example 2:

Walmart, the world's largest employer, needed a partner that could analyze the current state of employee financial wellbeing, design and implement targeted interventions to empower employees, and evaluate the impact of those solutions.

Mad*Pow’s first step in generating insight was to set up a collaborative workshop with corporate HR and associate wellbeing staff, as well as internal and external employee benefits providers. Mad*Pow conducted 150 hourly and salaried employee interviews at multiple locations across the U.S., along with an organization-wide survey.

The Interventions

  • Mad*Pow worked with Walmart to implement a call center that directs employees to resources and third-party partners in times of need.
  • Walmart integrated its payroll service with Even and PayActiv to address the issue of pay volatility.
  • Even helps “even out” income over time by establishing the average earnings between paychecks and automatically advancing or withholding earnings to stabilize pay, making financial planning and budgeting easier.
  • PayActiv helps employees access earned but unpaid wages between paydays to reduce the risk of costly overdrafts, missed payments, or payday loans.
  • The services also provide goal-setting, planning, and feedback techniques that help employees plan ahead for spending and savings goals.


  • 80,000 Walmart employees use the interventions
  • $30 million in employees’ pay has been affected
  • Potential to affect more than 1 million employees in over 3,500 locations
  • Read more about the case study.

How Can We Collaborate?

Consider the following questions:

  • How might we design financial products and services that can help address root causes of financial problems?
  • How might we leverage existing technologies to increase access and affordability of financial services and products?
  • How might we create a system that aligns measures of success for the financial system’s objective financial wellbeing with an individual’s subjective financial wellbeing?
  • How might we encourage and enable positive financial behaviors around spending and saving to ensure that people are not spending more than they earn?
  • How might we design individual and organizational support tools for decision-making regarding debts?
  • How might we help people achieve the retirement savings that makes them feel confident?
  • How might we leverage behavioral science to overcome the behavioral barriers to positive financial behaviors?
  • How might we mobilize existing objective and subjective financial data for further research?
  • How might we simplify opaque financial systems’ processes and jargon?

Let’s talk. Connect with us at [email protected].

[1] Federal Reserve. (2019). Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2018.

Contributed by
Dustin DiTommaso
Job Title
SVP, Behavior Change Design