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Retirement savings

November 15, 2012

What eavesdropping on retirees taught me

As part of my job, I used to listen in on people talking about their retirement plans. Now I’m using what I learned — and you can, too.

I’m an eavesdropper. I’ve spent hundreds of hours listening and watching as people talked about their retirement plans or their personal experiences in retirement.

Eavesdropping was part of my job as a researcher. As I neared my own retirement, I loved listening in on focus groups where we asked retirees and near-retirees nosey personal questions. Sometimes, I even got to make up the questions!

Some research participants were proud of their preparations. Others were embarrassed; some were in tears. I was honoured to have a chance to listen — unseen, behind one-way glass — while Canadians talked about their successes or failures in trying to build their savings, protect their families against nasty surprises and enjoy their lives.

I learned a lot in those hours behind the glass by listening to ordinary people who were preparing for, transitioning into or already living in retirement. I’m putting these insights and tips to use in my own retirement.

What I learned about goals

Many people let today trump tomorrow. Busy, stressed-out Boomers are preoccupied with short-term stuff: paying the MasterCard bill, getting the car repaired, or putting dinner on the table. They’re feeling guilty, even anxious, about not identifying their long-term goals, or planning to achieve them, but it never seems to be the right time to plan for tomorrow. Two tips:

  • Find out whether your spending aligns with your goals. In the next week, list your five most important goals. Then check your bank statement to see how well your actual spending lines up with your goals. (Be ready for a surprise.)
  • Talking with your spouse or an advisor can help. I saw one retiree from Winnipeg get really angry when the focus group leader asked questions the retiree was ashamed to admit he’d never considered.

What I learned about confidence

Most people feel unable to make informed retirement decisions by themselves. To gain confidence about something as complicated as retirement planning, you can:

  • Invest big amounts of time to educate yourself. But be realistic: If you’re not going to do this, or will do it badly or too late, then get help now.
  • Find a good advisor. Share your current situation, your goals and needs, and work together on a detailed retirement plan.

What I learned about knowledge

Many people believe in the tooth fairy! How else to explain why grown adults don’t know when they’ll get retirement income, how much it will be, where it will come from or for how long it’s going to last? It was rare to see someone in a focus group who knew his or her future income needs and how that income would be securely provided. Here’s a tip:

  • Don’t be intimidated. Yes, retirement income products can be complicated, but there aren’t many different types. In an hour, you can learn a lot.

As well, many people don’t know when they can retire. Or how. They’ve heard rules of thumb (e.g., “normal” retirement is at 65, retirees need 70% of pre-retirement income to live on) but they don’t know if those will work for them. What to do?

  • Find out when and how you can retire. It can be complicated and an advisor can be a big help.

And people just assume they’ll remain healthy. They don’t plan for the chance their health will be a problem. My suggestion:

  • Stop procrastinating. Face this issue and learn about it, including the cost of health care.

What I learned about relationships

People don’t have the right “money talks” with their partners. Many research participants don’t know their spouse’s income. They don’t budget together. They don’t create a net-worth statement together. They don’t know which spouse is in the higher tax bracket — and what they should do about it. A tip:

  • Create a net-worth statement. Set aside a couple of hours at the end of this month. Total your assets (house value, savings accounts, retirement savings, etc.). Total your liabilities (credit card debt, loans, mortgage/line of credit) and subtract from the total assets. Discuss.

What I learned about advice

Most people don’t know what their advisor does — and doesn’t do. They think it would be awkward to ask. It isn’t. Ask.

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