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Retirement Planning: How to Get Clients' Attention

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Lost in short-term planning or more focused on recovering from the financial crisis, many Americans aren’t paying enough attention to retirement planning.

A recent study by Edward Jones revealed that 28% of Americans said they spend more time thinking about vacation planning while 25% say they think about saving for retirement.


“It’s not that people are less concerned about retirement planning,” says Scott Thoma, retirement strategist with Edward Jones. “It’s just whenever you ask, it seems like they spend the most time thinking about [taking vacations] because retirement is just farther away.”

Many potential investors adopt an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude when it comes to retirement planning, according to Thoma. Things like vacation planning can serve as a distraction.

“When people plan vacations, they go through a lot of planning and detail for their itinerary: ‘How do I get there? What’s the best mode of transportation? Where will I stay. What cities will I visit?’” says Wedbush financial advisor Jeff Runyan. “With extended vacations people put in the same care to put together the itinerary. It’s interesting because when it comes to retirement — a 25-year vacation — that urgency slips away.”

Besides the “out of sight” attitude, fallout from the financial crisis has left many investors more focused on recovering what they lost.

“I don’t think that people have forgotten about retirement or aren’t paying attention,” says Tim Steffen, director of financial planning at Baird. “I think they’re focusing on issues like rebuilding their personal financial structure after the recession.”

Some clients may also not be thinking about retirement simply because they haven’t decided what they want from it yet.

“I would also make the case that the reason retirement planning isn’t a high priority is because it’s uncomfortable for many families to start thinking about,” says Daniel Torbeck, managing director at UBS in Cincinnati, Ohio. “They really don’t know what they want to accomplish long term.”

What are the best ways for advisors to shift a client’s focus from the needs of the present to those of the long term?


It’s no surprise that there are benefits to starting retirement planning early. Time can be the biggest advantage for people with modest financial assets, but younger investors are often hesitant to start planning in earnest. Experts say it’s important to show your clients why it’s in their best interest to invest now.

“We understand there are a lot of things that are competing for their dollars,” says Thoma, the Edward Jones retirement specialist. “The younger population spends it on something fun. The key is highlighting the benefit of growth over a 30- or 40-year time frame.”

Thoma suggests doing the math for your clients — showing them how much they should be putting away each year, but place it within the framework of their income.

“What we need to start doing more as an industry is not just showing clients a lump sum but also what it means in terms of income,” says Thoma. “Making sure we highlight not just what growth there can be but also what it means in terms of income in a single year.”

Putting away just $100 a week can mean an extra $100,000 in retirement. Showing clients, particularly younger investors, that starting to plan for retirement doesn’t mean making huge sacrifices can help entice them to start.

“Highlight the benefit of small increases,” suggests Thoma.


Mike Greene, senior vice president of financial planning at Ameriprise Financial, urges advisors to take their clients’ values and behaviors into account when having discussions about retirement. This is especially true for younger investors.

“You need to make retirement relatable,” Greene says. “It’s very common for advisors across the industry to use our jargon: dollar-cost averaging, indices... We use investment language.”

Taking a more holistic approach to discussing retirement planning with clients can spark enthusiasm. Asking about a client’s long-term goals may be a better way to approach the discussion.

“The definition of retirement is changing,” says Steffen at Baird. “Now, for a lot of people, it means maybe continuing to do the kind of work they were doing but less, or something else less stressful.”

A holistic approach to retirement is successful in two ways: First, it builds clients’ enthusiasm and helps them realize the potential of their post-work years. Second, it sets up clients with a successful and fulfilling retirement by focusing on what they can do when they stop working, by making the conversation more goal-oriented (and less scary).

“It’s those that retire to something that tend to have the most fulfilling retirements,” says Torbeck of UBS. “It could be a passion, it could be they’re leaving the corporate environment and going into the nonprofit world, it could be they’re going to spend more time with their grandkids, it could be a part-time job. Something that’s drawing them away from what they’re currently doing — that they have an interest they’re retiring to as opposed to, ‘I am retiring from this job.’”

Instead of handing your client a bulleted list of all the checkpoints they will have to hit in the years leading up to retirement, try talking about goals and aspirations.

“Don’t focus on questions like, ‘When are you going to stop working and what are you going to spend?’” suggests Steffen. “Instead, ask clients what they see themselves doing. It’s a softer way to think about it and it’s less intimidating.”


You’ve heard it before: Experts say it’s never too late to plan for retirement. But latecomers — clients in their late forties or fifties with no plan in place — have to approach the issue differently.

Self-aware latecomers may not want to think about it at all.

“Unfortunately, I think there’s a little denial that happens,” says Ben Barzideh, wealth advisor with Piershale Financial Group in Crystal Lake, Ill. “It makes [latecomers] nervous and they don’t like that feeling. So they put their head in the sand, act like it doesn’t matter and just go about their day.”

There will be some bad news, and it is important to share that with your clients. Honesty is important, but be careful not to fall into the habit of using scare tactics to try to make your clients understand the difficulties.

“Sometimes, you need to explain things just like a doctor would,” says Barzideh. “You need to be honest. You don’t want to scare people or be negative.”

Make sure your clients understand that certain things aren’t going to work. You can simply dial back goals rather than eliminating them altogether.

“The person who comes in at 55 and wants to retire at 58 — we have to have a hard conversation with them and say, ‘That’s not gonna work. If you start a savings program, dial back your goals a little bit, this is what you can do for retirement,’” says Steffen.


Finally, advisors also have a great opportunity to draw attention to retirement planning from what they learn about their clients. It’s easier to spark interest in retirement when you know your client’s story. Find out what makes the person tick. Zero in on your client’s future plans and the best ways to ensure his or her success. 

“Try to gain a level of excitement from the client,” Torbeck says. “As soon as [advisors] can be in tune with what that long-term dream is, the more benefit we can be to the client when it comes to reaching those goals and objectives.”


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