Shannon McLay is the founder and CEO of The Financial Gym, a national personal financial services company that takes a “fitness-inspired” approach to finances. Shannon has been featured on numerous news outlets, and she’s been named a woman to watch in Shapes “Women Changing the World” issue in 2019. On our new episode of YAFPNW, Matt and Shannon talk about what makes The Financial Gym different from traditional financial firms, the psychology of working with clients, and the one skill that every advisor needs.

The psychological side of financial planning

You might say that psychology is the backbone of Shannon’s approach to financial planning. The physical part of going to the gym and working out isn’t always the hardest part of reaching our health and fitness goals. Sometimes it’s breaking bad habits and forming better ones. It’s also learning not to focus on the fear and shame that may be holding you back. This can be applied to finances, too.

“Money is more than just dollars and cents and black and white. It’s highly emotional,” said Shannon. “There is a barrier for some people because of how they feel around their financial situation.”

Shannon wanted to remove as many barriers to financial health for her clients as she could. That’s why she wanted to offer personal financial services in a non-traditional way with The Financial Gym.

“Even the idea of having the “planner” title just puts a barrier between you and the client. And I didn't want to create any of that,” said Shannon. “I also wanted to change up the industry and change up the jargon and the lingo and the things that maybe people weren't connecting with.”

People may not connect with the idea of a financial planner, but Shannon found that they understood the connection between a fitness journey and financial journey. The Financial Gym team members are called, naturally, personal financial trainers.

Shannon went through CFP training, but ultimately chose not to sit for the exam. She learned a lot from her financial advisor experience at Merrill Lynch, and ultimately realized that she already had the education and skills she needed to do what she wanted to do.

“I've kind of joked with the team that what I'm looking for in a future financial trainer is probably somebody who has more of a psychology background than a CFP background,” said Shannon. “I can teach anybody what an ETF is or about life insurance, but most people's challenges with their finances are just in the mental mindset.”

How The Financial Gym serves clients

Though Shannon’s time at Merrill Lynch taught her a lot, she wasn’t happy with getting to work with people at a very specific point in their journey, usually older clients who had a certain amount of assets. She wanted to focus on the earlier stages of the financial journey in order to help clients reach their goals more quickly and efficiently.

“We talk about your financial journey like a road trip from New York to California...New York is starting out, California is retirement,” said Shannon. “My goal... for the team is to be able to tell clients, they've hit Colorado and they can retire. I saw the need of getting in there sooner and building these behaviors earlier into the process, into the road trip, so that we could get there faster.”

What about when unexpected life events derail the “road trip?” In other words, how has something like the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way The Financial Gym helps people?

Shannon described it as “a doozy of a year,” but also, the early months of the pandemic proved that their monthly membership model worked. Many of their clients lost their jobs, needed help filing for unemployment, or wanted to adjust their budget. They needed advice on their 401(k) contributions or buying or selling a house. They had a lot of questions that The Financial Gym was able to help with.

“It just proves the need for having a planner in your life for this time,” said Shannon. We call ourselves the ‘backseat drivers’ of your road're you're steering the car, but we’re in the backseat giving some guidance.”

Financial health isn’t just a one-and-done process; it requires regular maintenance and check-ins. Just like a personal fitness trainer, The Financial Gym can act as an “accountability buddy” for their clients. Shannon explained that their job is to prove their worth and stick with clients long enough so that they’re ready to handle their finances independently.

The one thing you need as a planner

Interested in working at The Financial Gym? The Financial Gym offers an eight-week apprenticeship program, which many small firms don’t offer right away. Apprentices learn much of the qualitative aspects of the job, as Shannon put it. That includes connecting with clients, helping people feel comfortable talking about their finances, or knowing how to give advice to clients.

Of course, the numbers side is there as well. Personal financial trainers at The Financial Gym can “level up” their role when they’re ready for more complex client work. While level one trainers help clients with basic finances, level three trainers may work with business owners with LLCs or clients with many different types of assets. Plus, senior trainers can work as mentors or in a number of other departments within the company.

Traditional financial planner, financial advisor, or personal financial trainer: what’s the one skill everyone in this profession needs to succeed? Empathy, Shannon said. You need empathy somewhere in your bones in order to serve your clients well.

“I always say, anybody could do a financial plan. We all know it’s a template at the end of the day, it's just numbers, it's math, anyone can do it,” said Shannon. “But how do you deliver that plan that is going to connect with your client? And then, how do you keep that client on the plan? That's like the secret sauce of financial've got to have a high level of empathy, because it's not just a template anymore.”

What You’ll Learn:

  • What makes The Financial Gym unique
  • The problem with comparison, in finances and fitness
  • Guiding clients to their ideal financial fitness
  • Why Shannon passed on the CFP exam
  • What inspired Shannon to start early with clients
  • How COVID-19 has impacted client work
  • The Financial Gym’s apprenticeship program
  • Leveling up as a financial trainer
  • Advice for getting better at understanding clients

In this episode of YAFPNW, Matt Fizell, CFP®, and Shannon McLay discuss:

Interested in following Shannon? Follow her on LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter!