Broker Check

Why Retirement Is More Than A Number

by Darren L. Zagarola, CFP®, CPA, PFS

As published in The Wall Street Journal Wealth Adviser “Voices” column October 7, 2014

When it comes to building financial plans for clients, our firm has always avoided the numbers-first mentality. I think that approach is one that appeals mutually to clients and advisers. When a client walks into our office, they don’t want to be judged or measured based on the assets that they have, just as we ask them not to judge us solely on investment performance.

The challenge is that there’s still a prevailing sense among clients that retirement is a number. They turn on the television and see dozens of commercials reinforcing the idea that planning for their future is about reaching some arbitrary figure. As advisers, our goal should be helping clients start to think about retirement as a feeling rather than as a number. How would they like to spend their time in the future, what would it mean to do something rewarding, and what might that feel like? There are a number of ways we help them find those answers.

To begin, we rarely even touch on numbers through our first few meetings with clients. Instead, we spend that time discussing their personal goals, what they want out of life. That means asking them about themselves, not about their savings or investments, but their family circumstance and health history. Those details alert us to any financial planning issues--such as are they insurable, and what do their retirement projections look like--while gathering insight into how they feel about money. I find that dialogue to be much more useful than risk profiling evaluations.

The conversation also involves considerable time talking about the client’s job--how they feel about it now as well as their interest in continuing to do it in the future. If they love one facet of their job, maybe we can help them find a way to eliminate their other responsibilities in retirement. If they would leave their job at the drop of a hat, we’ll look for a way to make that happen.

Despite public discourse about the changing face of retirement, people still come in to our office thinking that they’re going to spend 30 years watching TV and playing shuffleboard. But people are much more active later into life, and whether they’re conscious of it or not, they tend to want value in their retirement.

They want to spend those years pursuing something that really matters to them. If that happens to be their job, that’s great. If not, we want to help them articulate what that is so we can start building a plan that allows them to pursue it.

The key to a successful discovery process is taking care not just to listen, but to really hear our clients. That means letting go of the impulse to direct the meeting and instead taking cues from the client, letting them lead the conversation. Forget following the questionnaire you’ve prepared, and let their responses guide you. When you give clients a forum to express themselves, you’ll get all the information you need to build a plan that feels right and works for them.