It’s Friday night and I’m hitting up a supper club in Brookline, a yuppie neighborhood outside Boston. Rather than meeting at someone’s house, the event is taking place at the Society of Grownups clubhouse, a curious new spot that suddenly popped up last October. Entering through the glass doors, there’s a sleek coffee bar manned by a smiling bartender-barista and a large communal table surrounded by bookshelves. But taking a look at the menu board, it’s clear this is not another trendy coffee shop. Available for purchase are coffee ($3) and tea ($2). But also financial check-ups ($20), short classes on subjects like negotiating your salary or buying a home ($30), and, of course, tickets to supper clubs ($40).
As I sit waiting for dinner to begin, people from the neighborhood trickle in, curious about what this is all about. The truth is, it can be a little hard to explain. Society of Grownups is a place for newly minted adults to learn about money. It’s not a bank, since no financial services are sold and it’s not a financial consulting firm, since advisors don’t get a cut of your returns on investment. Instead, it provides millennials the opportunity to ask their burning questions about money–like: what kind of vacation they can afford? Or how to quit their job to start their own company?– in a setting that looks and feels familiar to them. And what is more comfortable to a twentysomething than a coffee bar?
The idea of Society of Grownups came about after a particularly productive brainstorming session involving the design firm Ideo and Mass Mutual, the insurance company. Together, they noticed a significant gap in the market: there are no financial education initiatives targeting millennials. Banks and financial advisors don’t invest in the millennial market, mostly because young people don’t have much money. But perhaps more importantly, millennials have lost faith in financial service institutions. This generation came of age during the Great Recession and Occupy Wall Street; according to numerous studies, millennials are highly skeptical of banks, seeing them as the enemy rather than valuable resources. One study found that 71% of millennials would rather go to the dentist than listen to their banker. Rather than seeking out professional financial advice, millennials are two times as likely to turn to their parents, who are not always equipped to offer the right counsel.
Because it’s still mostly taboo to talk about money among friends and colleagues, people in their twenties and thirties tend to be fairly clueless about money–which is a shame, since those are valuable years for developing good financial habits and saving for big ticket items. “It’s just not part of American culture to talk openly about money,” says Nondini Naqui, director of Society of Grownups. “I talk to my best friend about absolutely everything, but we still don’t share our salaries. And talking to your parents is not always that helpful, because they have such different values or ideas about how money should be spent. At Society of Grownups, we wanted to create a place where these kinds of conversations could happen.”
Society of Grownups’ parent company is Mass Mutual, but Naqui tells me that it will be run as an independent company that provides neutral advice. “I see Mass Mutual as a company that creates products for people who are more my father’s age,” she says. “It’s not really targeting people in their twenties and thirties.” There is no overt Mass Mutual branding at the Society of Grownups clubhouse or on the website, but the name does comes up when you ask representatives about the origins of the company.
Given millennials’ skepticism towards the finance industry, offering a safe space for young people to familiarize themselves with things like retirement funds, life insurance and investing is a compelling strategy for a big institution like Mass Mutual. It’s very clear that a hard sell would turn millennials away immediately, but Society of Grownups’ educational, non-salesy ambiance seems like a smart way to win their trust.
The supper club is about to start. The topic of conversation for the evening is “Couples and Money.” As someone who has been married for two years but has never had a serious conversation about money with my husband, I thought the event might be helpful. It’s a small gathering, with only twelve participants split into two tables. The three course menu for the evening is prepared by the chef of Mei Mei, a hip Chinese American restaurant that began as a food truck. Wine is poured freely, making it easy for us to get to know the other people at my table.
Mark Shorey, a 27-year-old advertising executive, was there with his fiancee and another couple, also in their twenties. “We decided to make a night out of it by getting drinks at the pub across the street afterwards,” he tells me. “It’s kind of insane: when would you ever incorporate a visit to a financial institution into your Friday going out plans?”
I bond with Simon Bowers, a 31-year-old who works in public relations, over our mutual distaste for banks. “I hate going to a bank and not really knowing what I am doing when it comes to money. I don’t like the feeling that I am being taken advantage of or talked down to,” he says. “Bankers throw you all these jargony words; they don’t realize that this might be the very first conversation you are having about your financial future. They don’t seem to take into account that this might be scary for us.” Shorey agrees: “When I think of banks, I think of a stark office with painfully white walls, sitting across from some 55-year-old man in a dark suit who is quietly judging me.”
As our starters (pierogi dumplings!) are served, we’re introduced to our hosts for the evening: a financial planner and a behavioral scientist, who throw out questions as we nibble: What does money mean to you? What are your long-term financial goals? How these similar or different from your partner’s?
These topics throw me into a mild panic. It occurs to me that I have studiously avoided dealing with anything remotely money related my entire life. Taxes give me migraines. Interest rates go over my head. I translate paychecks into the number of shoes they yield. I survived my twenties without going into debt or bankruptcy by delegating money related tasks to my much more responsible boyfriend who — thank god — went on to become my husband. But still, it makes me wonder whether I can really consider myself a grownup. Isn’t managing money the first step towards adulthood?
It turns out, I’m not alone in my financial illiteracy. In a study conducted by Oxford University and BNY Mellon, millennials across 7 countries were fairly clueless about money: half, for instance, had no idea how pensions worked. The millennial savings rate is currently negative 2%–which means, they’re mostly in debt–compared to between 3% and 13% among older demographics. The problem is, most millennials don’t know where to turn for sound financial advice. While Occupy Wall Street is now a distant memory, the roots of that movement penetrated deep into millennial attitudes, causing them to reject the institutions that have historically helped adults navigate the complex world of money. Recent research found that while 39% of millennials worry about money at least once a week, 23% felt that there was no one they could trust to ask financial questions.
Society of Grownups is working overtime to seem trustworthy to the millennial set. With Ideo’s counsel, every aspect of the company–website, advertising, physical space–is carefully designed to meet the needs of the millennial consumer. They’ve anticipated that conversations about money are likely to spur anxiety in someone like myself, so the campaign to launch Society of Grownups centered around two words: “Don’t Panic.” Plastered on Boston buses, their ads consist of artistic black and white photographs of trendy young people in various poses of anxiety–heavily tattooed dude with his hand covering his face, a leather-clad girl with an edgy haircut biting her nails– with the words “You’re a Grownup Don’t Panic” on the front.
“They’ve nailed the messaging,” Shorey tells me. “They get that people our age are not kids anymore; we’re not crushing twenty Bud lights every night. But we haven’t got it all figured out, either.”
All the marketing materials Society of Grownup produces feel like luxury products from a trendy high end boutique, with a color scheme of cream and mint green. Rather than a boring informational pamphlet, you can take home a pretty gold-emblazoned booklet titled, “Secrets of the Society: A Primer for Newly Minted Grownup.” At the supper club, we are given little Moleskine-like notebooks and pens; there are stickers that say “Don’t Panic” floating around for the taking, together with pins, pencils and coasters emblazoned with the Society of Grownups crest. I’m given a little canvas bag with the words “Don’t Panic” in gold lettering on the front, full of important anxiety reducing items such as: mint green sunglasses, M&Ms that say “don’t panic” contained in a chill pill bottle, relaxing tea, a mini chocolate bar, a candle.
The Society of Grownups clubhouse is a fun place, but according to Naqui, the company is currently working to expand online before bringing more physical locations to other cities. Soon, it will be possible to take classes online and get advice digitally, allowing newly minted adults around the country — and even the world — to get the financial help that they need. “We’re a startup, so we’re focused on taking it one day at a time or I might be the one who goes into a panic,” Naqui tells me. “But we have every hope of making our services available nationally in some form or other.”
The supper club continues and as we dig into our main course (braised beef and rice!) we begin to get into heavy conversations about how money figures into relationships. The behavioral scientist talks about different ways we might sabotage productive conversations with our partners by avoiding the issue entirely or getting mad for no apparent reason in a subconscious effort to deflect. The financial planner throws out questions like: If you were suddenly to die, would your partner have access to your bank accounts? And: What would you be willing to give up to allow your partner to achieve a personal financial goal? Both dinner hosts tread a delicate line between encouraging participants to share, while also not putting pressure on them to speak unless they want to.
As our dessert course (chocolate mousse with ginger cream!) is served, I realized that we’ve covered quite a lot of ground. While I would have preferred more nuts and bolts advice about tackling joint finances, I think a big part of the supper club was to simply put these issues on the table (along with the delicious grub).
Afterward, Simon Bowers, says the same thing. “This class seems like a Couples 101 class, for people who have never discussed money before,” he says. “Everything was at a high level, but I kind of left wanting a roadmap or a sense of what my next steps should be. But perhaps having that level of detail means digging into our personal details and would require sitting down with a financial advisor.”
Mark Shorey, on the other hand, feels like he’s left with some useful pointers. He and his fiancee are going to try to set aside time on their calendar every month to have a chat about money, then reward themselves with a nice dinner afterwards. One of the most helpful parts of the events for him was listening to other people his age share their concerns. “It just gives you a sense of validation knowing that other people have similar questions and anxieties,” he says.
The one thing I took away is that there is not one right way to manage money: couples can share all their money, maintain their own bank accounts, keep separate credit cards but the same savings accounts, or invent some other hybrid method. None of these approaches mean there is any less love in the relationship; the important thing is to have the conversation.