“Escape rooms” have become all the rage in recent years. These interactive experiences, which combine elements of theater, team building, and puzzle solving, often have a theme tied to a movie genre or some sort of adventure, such as Indiana Jones or Mission Impossible.
For a branded experience held in Grand Central Terminal as part of last month’s Fast Company Innovation Festival, Prudential Financial put a novel twist on the escape room: an exhilarating journey that had little to do with outracing tumbling boulders or limboing below laser beams but, rather, illustrated the challenges we face along our path to financial independence and stability. i escaped from my parents’ basement was the message emblazoned on T-shirts that were presented to teams that completed a harrowing mission through an outwardly pleasant-looking suburban home. Whether they emerged from a fun house or a house of horrors had everything to do with how successfully—and quickly—they solved the puzzles inside, which determined the “age” at which they can comfortably retire.
The themes illustrated in the escape room were woven into a festival panel entitled “A Unified Theory of Financial Wellness,” presented by Prudential in Grand Central’s Vanderbilt Hall, on the escape room’s “front lawn.” The participants included Naveen Agarwal, Prudential’s chief customer officer; healthcare entrepreneur Alexandra Drane; and Erin Lowry, author of the Broke Millennial book series. What follows are edited excerpts from their conversation, which was moderated by a Fast Company contributor, along with passages that were added after the fact for clarity.
Naveen, why does financial wellness look different now than it did 10, 20, or 30 years ago?
Naveen Agarwal: I think this generation has to think about their benefits and their financials in a very different way than people before us. Retirement is increasingly something we have to plan for, rather than our employers planning it for us. So how we think about finances and the risks in our future is quite different. We also live in kind of a “happiness economy,” created by social media platforms, where everybody is happy. So, we want to be happy too, which means we become a nation of spenders, versus a nation of careful planners.
Erin, you’ve written about people who live in the moment versus people who plan ahead.
Erin Lowry: I break it into three groups. You have “Team YOLO FOMO,” if we want to go super-millennial about it. These are people who are very much, “Drinks are on me; I got it.” They are not thinking about retirement and they probably have not started contributing to a 401(k). Then you have the “Guarded Optimists,” who are thinking right now, Things aren’t great, but I know that by 35, I’m going to have either sold an app to Google or I’ll be making $250,000 easy, and life will be fine. That’s when I’ll figure it out. Then the third group is dreaming about retirement. These are the weirdos like me who are super–future-focused, almost to the detriment of today.
Alex, you bring an interesting perspective as someone who recently traveled all over the country on behalf of Prudential’s “State of US” ad campaign. Where did you go and what were you seeking to explore?
Alexandra Drane: Our goal was to better understand how real people are doing in their lives around money, since money is one of the biggest worries most of us have—it’s not always something we talk about openly. Using a combination of data and personal stories, we identified six towns across the country that best represented common financial challenges millions of Americans are facing today. Once in these towns, we learned that, while the specific stories people shared might be different, we are all much more alike than one might think.
In Stonington, Maine, we spoke to three generations of lobstermen exploring self-employment and surviving a bad lobster season. In Jacksonville, North Carolina, a city with one of the highest birth rates in America, we connected with young military families challenged with saving for college and retirement at the same time. And in Loma Linda, California, where residents are living on average 10 years longer, we spoke to residents who were finding joy in their strong sense of community as they figure out how to support all those extra years. We saw over and over how united we actually are in the ways we support each other and survive the sometimes-hard reality of life in America today.
Erin, what did you find in your examination of the millennial generation? Are people feeling a lot of financial insecurity?
EL: Student-loan debt is an obvious answer here. Wage stagnation is another one. I am bullish on millennials, and hopeful for our generation. I think a big part of it is that we’re more open to having some of these conversations that prior generations didn’t necessarily have. The Internet is a huge game changer for us, not only in our access to jobs and opportunities, but also in our ability to have conversations with people—downloading podcasts that talk about money, reading content where people are putting their real lives out there and sharing their stories. People are creating communities where you can talk about money and learn about it in a way you never could before because it was such a taboo topic.
Let’s talk about that some more. Erin, you come from a family that was unusually open about money.
EL: I call this my “origin story.” It’s the Krispy Kreme donut story. I was seven years old. My mom was having a yard sale. I decided with my four-year-old sister to sell Krispy Kreme donuts to people coming to the yard sale, to make some cash. So, I asked my dad if he would stake me, and buy the donuts because, you know, I was seven. He agreed, and we set up my little table at the end of the driveway. I made 20 bucks. At the end of the day my dad comes over, he sees this pile of quarters. I’m thrilled. I’m going to Toys R Us. Dad looks at my pile of quarters and says, “Well, your sister worked for you, so you owe her two dollars. And I bought the donuts. So you owe me back eight dollars. Your net profit is 10 dollars.” And then he took the money. So parents, please take the idea! There are so many opportunities for you in a very tangible way to teach your children about money. If we start when they’re really little—trust me, four, five, six, seven, is not too young—they remember. And then we can start to normalize the conversation.
AD: One of my favorite things about working in the health care space is realizing my own hypocrisy. I can do a great job lecturing people all day long about what they should be doing to be healthy, and then I go home, skip the gym, eat like crap, and pour that second glass of wine. The same thing is true with finances. I am doing this incredible project with Prudential, where I’m supposed to be an expert, and yet one of the consistently biggest arguments my honey and I have is over how we think about money, and our children are absolutely not financially literate at all. Traveling the country with Prudential has helped me realize we are so not alone in that—and it feels so much better not to be the only one! It’s been amazing how many incredible humans will come up to me and share how much better they feel after seeing one of Prudential’s TV spots, or the longer documentary pieces. They’ll say, “I thought I was the only one struggling with that. And it’s so good to know I’m not alone.” So I think there’s actually an incredible opportunity to encourage more money conversations like this—because it’s a conversation most of us actually want to have, and we’re just not sure how to bring it up. Use this as your excuse!
Naveen, what’s the role of an institution like Prudential in having these conversations across the country?
NA: Let me ask the crowd something: How many of you have a credit card that gives points for spending? [Most people raise their hands.] Okay, pretty much everybody. I call that fast money, and making decisions about fast money is easy. Now, how many of you have an account for saving that also gives you points? [No one raises their hands.] Right. I call that slow money. There are long-term decisions we need to make that are really meaningful. We don’t make those decisions well at all.
Prudential is very focused on helping people make decisions around money that are really vital to your well-being, and making it as simple as we can. We recently launched an interactive online experience called LINK by Prudential, where we talk to you about your life in the same context as you think about fast money, but can help you in the context of slow money, for example, with simple step-by-step actions related to concrete goals.
Something I would love to do is figure out how can we reward people for saving. Credit card companies can give you points, because they make money from fees and interest on unpaid balances. But in a savings context, that money doesn’t exist. So we have a system that drives financial happiness—because you end up spending money—but doesn’t drive financial wellness. So how do we create a reward system for doing the right thing? I’m always thinking about how we can make that happen. If any one of you has a good idea about it, please let me know. We’d love to hear about it.
This article was created for and commissioned by Prudential.