Positive Messaging Can Empower Participants

Plan advisers should stress the importance of communication and planning, signaling that retirement is a time of empowerment—not a dismal single life event.

“Retirement is exciting if you have a plan and you know where you’re going,” Nick Ventura, president and CEO of Ventura Wealth Management , a registered investment advisory in Ewing, New Jersey, told PLANADVISER. Participants who don’t have a plan and have not thought ahead to where they can go are likelier to find retirement frightening.

“The message is that retirement is not a single event but a series of life stages,” Ventura says. Each stage can be anticipated and planned for, to minimize anxiety and help participants look forward with enjoyment to a new chapter.

The lack of focus on the plan participant is a failing of some corporate retirement plans, feels Dan McElwee, manager and executive vice president of Ventura Wealth Management, who supports institutional plans in the small-plan market. “We include financial planning for all participants,” McElwee says, and one-on-one meetings get the best results.

The plan sponsor takes on a lot of liability by taking on the responsibility of a retirement plan, and Ventura takes a holistic approach that involves frequent monitoring, weekly emails and weekly blog posts. “We try to keep everyone up to date with the financial markets,” McElwee says. 

When people aren’t fully informed, they are more likely to make an irrational investment decisions, McElwee cautions. “The closer you get to retirement, the more likely you are to make an emotional decision with possibly drastic consequences,” he says.

McElwee suggests that advisers have plain, direct conversations with their plan sponsors about the need to provide education and advice to plan participants. “It’s important for participants to have ongoing interaction with their advisers,” he says, “not just when things are good or bad. And financial advisers should recognize that it is important to build a relationship with the plan sponsor , the plan and the plan participants.”

Planning for the Long Term

The way people think about retirement seems to be lagging behind the changes in retirement over the past couple of decades. Ventura points to several contributing factors. Medical advances, improvements in diet and corporate wellness programs have all increased longevity. “People can receive Social Security for at least 20 to 30 years, in some cases,” he says. Retirement can almost match the length of a career.

Helping people realize how long retirement can last is critical, Ventura says. Plan sponsors can encourage their participants to save to the maximum extent possible. The medical techniques and technology are part of the positive message, Ventura feels. People are going to live longer and healthier lives, but first the older mentality must be swept away and the retirement years planned for.

More people have become used to a higher standard of living, Ventura says, and this should be part of the newer and more positive message of retirement. “It would be great for people to think, as they reach retirement, ‘I’ve had the right advice, and I’ve saved enough. I don’t have to cut back,’ “ he says.

Plan participants fear the retirement phase, Ventura says, noting that fear and greed are the world’s greatest motivators. “But fear causes irrational behavior. Participants don’t save enough. They don’t monitor their investments. They don’t participate in a workplace savings plan, even one with an employer match,” Ventura says. “The first thing advisers should tell plan participants is to think of retirement as another phase of living. It’s empowering. It’s not an end—it’s the beginning of the next phase of your life.”

Plan sponsors can also help by changing the message in education materials and using a positive tone. “Participants should hear that retirement can be the next exciting part of their lives, and that in order to enjoy it, they need to prepare by saving adequately,” Ventura says. The combination of inadequate savings and fear of an inactive, unengaged retirement is the reason so many people find thinking about retirement depressing, which in turn can choke off positive savings behaviors.

Three Stages of Retirement

Ventura says that retirement can be divided into three distinct stages. He calls the first one “self-renewal,” and describes it as a period of adjustment to a new paradigm. The demands of a working career give way to introspection and new goals. Many people use this time to revisit decisions about how and where to live. Some begin a second career; others become more involved in family activities or volunteer work—all help to define what retirement means on a personal level.

Ventura tells of one client with more than enough in assets, but who faced the prospect of retirement in her mid-50s with utter panic. She simply hadn’t thought of about what the next stage of life would be like, without the daily demands of an absorbing career. The centerpiece to planning this stage is making a draft of what the participant wants his life to be.

During the “retirement journey,” a phase that comprises the activities that add to an enriching retirement, many retirees blend leisure and productive activities with family time. The lack of strict timetables and deadlines can make it a very enjoyable time of life. “People are incredibly busy during this time,” Ventura says. “They’re traveling, they’re in businesses, they’re in nonprofits, sometimes they are busier than when they were working.”

In the “closing chapter,” retirees can plan for their care better than before. The question to ask, Ventura says, is “How do I comfortably end my life on this planet?” In this final stage, Ventura says, “too often people abruptly come to an illness or misfortune and they are thrust in before even considering what that environment should be.” Before reaching that stage is the time to plan for long-term living, assisted care, and where to live.

At least half the investors in the affluent families in Ventura’s wealth management line are in some stage of retirement, Ventura says, and the ones who are enjoying their retirement have several things in common: they have made a plan, saved enough and have planned for the final phase.

“They’ve got their long-term care situation squared away,” Ventura says. “They’ve thought about who should have living wills, powers of attorney. To people who haven’t done all the work, retirement becomes very taxing, very burdensome,” Ventura observes. “Final-phase planning is very important.”