Don’t blame clients for thinking that saving for retirement is all work and no play. Consider advisers’ common initial feedback to prospective clients: “You are not saving enough.” “Your portfolio isn’t diversified enough.”
And to ensure they don’t get high expectations from any investments we recommend, fund prospectuses warn, “Past performance does not guarantee future results.” Of course, that’s essential and important disclosure, but it can put a damper on any investor enthusiasm. Headlines in personal finance magazines do little to counteract the impression: “Why You Will Never Have Enough to Retire.” “How to Protect Your Portfolio in a Volatile Market.”
Recently, while discussing some post-Brexit buying opportunities with clients, I was reminded of the power of finding a silver lining — of refusing to allow potential positives to be swallowed by negativity. I sometimes worry that in our abundant caution, we sometimes squelch clients’ hope.
REALIST, NOT REACTIONARY
Doom and gloom certainly sell, of course. The Brexit vote and the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union offered a recent reminder. Headlines around the world screamed: “EU Vote: Now PM warns of War and Genocide,” and “British Stun World with Vote to Leave EU.” Admittedly, I was somewhat shocked when Alan Greenspan called the market’s reaction to Brexit the “worst period I can recall since I’ve been in public service.”
Interestingly, however, although the VIX gauge of market fear did indeed hover between 24 and 25 the day after the Leave victory shocked the world, the VIX was twice as high in August of last year after China’s surprise devaluation of its currency. And although challenges still exist, the S&P 500 rebounded from its initial plummet within a week of what was billed as the Brexit calamity.
Full disclosure: I’m an optimist. In the darkest hours, I look for and find the light. Underscoring this was a recent talk with a friend whose wife was left with serious brain damage after a car crash. Eight months after the injury, her doctor told my friend that his wife had recovered as far as she would. The doctor suggested that my friend find a long-term care facility so that he could “move on with his life.”
Fast-forward one year and, with devoted care and ongoing therapy, his wife has a chance to return to her job in a middle school. On a recent visit with the doctor who had given up on his wife, my friend shared how deflating the doctor’s words had been, and how they nearly extinguished his hope.
By no means do I place the work of saving for retirement on an equal plane with caregiving efforts, yet my friend’s story reminds me that my job as an adviser is to keep my clients moving ahead in a positive way.
CLIENTS NEED COACHING
I’m no Pollyanna promoting pie-in-the-sky dreams. Clients and I set realistic short- and long-term goals, and measure their progress. In a volatile market, I emphasize what still remains in our clients’ control: how much they save, how they invest and how they can withstand market swings and remain invested in their diversified portfolios. Granted, it’s not necessarily easy to motivate clients using the joy in saving, rather than the fear of not having enough.
Both the federal government and employers understand that human behavior can be manipulated to boost savings. We have tax-advantaged savings accounts, 401(k) default participation and annual automated contribution increases to encourage workers to save for retirement. But we need to do more. The 2016 Employee Benefit Research Institute Retirement Confidence Survey found just 21% of workers were “very confident” they would have enough money to live comfortably through retirement.
How do we counter the countless negative behavioral forces that obstruct the path toward saving for retirement? Could we advance a more positive view of the practice? For example, “budget” has become a banned word for my practice. I made the change to “spending plan” after I asked my daughter’s friend how her sophomore year had gone and she responded, “My parents put me on a budget.” She could barely utter the word. Although the core of any successful financial plan, “budget” conveys the negative notion that someone else limits your spending. Conversely, the connotation for “spending plan” is positive and personal. It’s a tool to ensure that clients spend their assets in a mindful way, on what matters most to them.
There’s no question achieving short-term financial goals motivates clients to save for the long-term. Because of today’s investment challenges, I’m now asking clients to make another use of their short-term successes: that they reflect on the satisfaction and joy they feel when they successfully meet a short-term goal and convert those positive emotions into motivation to save for the future.
LET THE SUNSHINE IN
Instead of leaning on the old fear of not having saved enough to enjoy a secure retirement, I want clients to parlay their sense of enjoyment and accomplishment from meeting a short-term goal into retirement-savings motivation. Yes, having saved and paid for college illustrates for clients that they are capable of committing to a savings plan, but using the pride and joy they feel watching their child receive a diploma may be what it takes to advance their retirement savings efforts.
In client meetings, we’ve explored how advance planning brings about real happiness. Here’s my favorite: I asked a client who just opened her summer home how her weekend was. She responded, “It was so pleasant. I had stocked the house with essentials before I closed it up in the fall. So, instead of running around shopping for laundry detergent or the recycling bags we need to use at the town dump, my only errands were to the fish market and farm stand.”
It’s a good illustration of the principle. Recalling the wonderful summer dinner on her deck will be a far greater motivator to save than conjuring up fears of running out of money at age 75.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.
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