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The Post-Pandemic Retirement Survival Guide. Part 2.

Written by Richard Rosso | Apr 29, 2021
Retirement Survival Guide, The Post-Pandemic Retirement Survival Guide. Part 2.PRINTER FRIENDLY VERSION

Consider the post-pandemic retirement survival guide as the catalyst for renewal.

(Read Part 1 – Here)

At the least, I hope it serves as a reminder of how a retirement planning strategy may require change when conditions warrant. Turbulent periods can lead to great self-awareness, a sense of inner fulfillment that no amount of money can purchase.

Perhaps you’re confident in your current strategy. Market prognosticators believe that economic ‘normal’ is mere months away (normal is yet to be defined). They may help to validate your hope for financial recovery in your household.

Ostensibly, experts go so far as to say the pandemic and its after-effects will disappear by late this year. It’ll be like the global economies never experienced economically devastating lockdowns, a spike in mental health obstacles, and substance abuse. Also, let’s not forget the mind-blowing increase in extreme poverty.

I mean, just like that, the world’s economies will recover from the odd global quarantine of healthy people (never happened before). Oh, the lofty, idealistic haze of markets and its prognosticators tipsy on the never-empty punchbowls of fiscal and monetary stimulus. Their rosy outlooks make me smile. I hope they’re correct.

Retirement Survival Guide, The Post-Pandemic Retirement Survival Guide. Part 2.

What does post-pandemic financial recovery mean to you?

Keep in mind, many retirees or those looking to retire soon perceive economic recovery through a darker lens. In other words, a post-pandemic retirement may be ‘no retirement.’ More lower-income workers than ever believe that working much longer is in the cards for them due to COVID financial setbacks.

“With the present economy due to Covid, I am afraid it will take several years to recover and for our retirement savings and investments to be enough for us to retire the way we originally set it up.”

National Institute of Retirement Security, February 2021.

Pew Research, a bipartisan research think tank, conducted a study of 10,334 adults in January 2021 and discovered that a quarter of adults 50 and older who have not yet retired expect the coronavirus outbreak to affect their ability to retire.  This data includes 7% who say they have already delayed their retirement, and an additional 17% think they might have to wait for it.

Retirement Survival Guide, The Post-Pandemic Retirement Survival Guide. Part 2.

We can work together to make sense of it all.

Part 2 of the Post-Pandemic Survival Guide is qualitative because planning isn’t exclusively about numbers. Sometimes it’s messy and emotional. No matter how diligent one may be about saving and investing, life can get in the way of even the most perfect of formal plans. 

I request you dig deep and consider how the pandemic may have changed your habits. Maybe the time in quarantine served as a catalyst, a  mental reshuffle of what you define as important. Retirement doesn’t have to be some fantasy or a magic number. It merely requires a tincture of self-reflection mixed with reality. Define what’s truly important outside the borders of the financials and within your own heart. Then go back and worry about numbers.

This begs me to ask:

Action #1: What will be your ‘Grand Reset?’

Do you have what it mentally takes to get over yet another hurdle to retirement? Has the pandemic been the catalyst to search inward for a revised vision of a secure retirement? A personal definition of security has only partly to do with money. I know people with retirement coffers in low six-figures that experience more secure retirements than some with eight-figure balances.

Maybe an open-minded approach based more on qualitative elements of retirement can enhance your thinking. Can one adjust expectations and, at the same time, not give up on the idea of a fruitful, productive retirement? I know so as I witness people accomplish this all the time.

Giving up on planning for retirement isn’t an option. Throwing in the towel isn’t a strategy. Resetting how you think about retirement can be. Hey, when the computer freezes up, what’s the first thing we do? We restart it! 

REINVENT – that’s what matters. Use the lessons learned during the pandemic. And if they’re not your lessons, steal them from what others have experienced! Walk a path, form a voice specific to you. Design a retirement formula that isn’t dictated by what financial media says it should be. 

A real-life example.

I worked with a 67-year-old gentleman who was planning to retire at 72. Then the pandemic hit. He wasn’t affected financially. His plan remained on track. However, what changed was his realization that life is short, and perhaps lofty overseas travel and other big-spending goals weren’t that important after all. The quarantine altered the client’s retirement aspirations. From a quality of life perspective, he gained five years of richness beyond what dollars can purchase – more significant time with loved ones, peace of mind, flexibility, sleeping in!

Formulate a grand reset that adds rich layers to retirement that have nothing to do with spending. Can you reduce a financial goal, downsize, work a part-time job at something you’re passionate about, all to gain another year or longer away from daily rituals that exhaust you?

What are your rules?

I have a friend who used the pandemic time to create a series of NEVER AGAIN statements. He wrote them on an index card.  The note serves as a constant reminder to follow the rules and avoid the temptation to spend on impulse items or extravagant wants. 

NEVER AGAIN will:

  • I live above my means.
  • Society dictate what’s right for me.
  • I have personal boundaries crossed, financial or otherwise.

You get the picture. Here’s one I created: NEVER AGAIN, will I be unprepared for financial vulnerability. Thus, my motivation to maintain at least a year’s worth of living expenses in a cash reserve. At RIA, we call it a Financial Vulnerability Cushion.

Write your NEVER AGAINS. Review them regularly, so you remember long after this event passes.

NEVER FORGET your NEVER AGAINS.

It’s not the Great Pandemic; it’s the Grand Reset. Use the experience and aftermath to discover a more authentic, pragmatic retirement planning process. 

Retirement Survival Guide, The Post-Pandemic Retirement Survival Guide. Part 2.

Action #2: Are your thoughts around money ‘sub-optimized?’

Thirty years of partnering with others through financial challenges, thousands of words, and oddly I experienced personal angst over this one -“sub-optimized.”

It’s rare the word arises, if at all. There was something about it that captured my curiosity. I wondered about the obstacles that create what I call “dollar drag,” whereby the highest and best use of our money is overlooked or ignored, thus throwing us off track to hit retirement or any other financial goal.

Sub-optimization is an equal opportunity offender. We all are afflicted, even if our track record of handling money is better than average. There can be great intentions, even good core money habits, and yet sub-optimization thrives because we’re human.

As in the case of this fifty-something couple: Six-figure wage earners, ambitious savers who set aside 20% of income for retirement and saddled with dangerous credit card debt levels due to a failed real estate venture, overall, I give them high marks when it comes to handling their money. However, a simple solution to reduce the high-interest debt was clearly in front of them, but they couldn’t see it. They couldn’t wrap their minds around their financial condition in its entirety. There was a mental barrier between the personal and business debt even though they were the business. In other words, the burdensome interest charges affected their household net worth.

Sub-optimization is a challenge for all of us.

As a financial professional, I realize nobody can avoid some degree of sub-optimization or dollar drag. Much of it stems from a failure in our logic called mental accounting. See, we like to categorize money: We create mental walls that prevent us from considering how each dollar can flow freely through and across various goals to the final and best destinations on our household balance sheets.

Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University and New York Times best-selling author, helped me understand how to position “highest and best use” in my mind. He said, “every financial decision has an opportunity cost. You cannot make the best money choices in a vacuum.” It’s sort of how Social Security recipients perceive the retirement benefits claiming strategy through the lens of break-even and not how taking benefits before full retirement age can reduce overall consumption dollars over a lifetime.

I’ve noticed that the pandemic has helped people ‘unpack’ their thoughts about money and finally realize that financial crises occur more often than initially told. It’s like getting smacked in the side of the head with reality.

So, how does one think full circle financial?

Break it down and look around. 

Don’t perceive every financial challenge as a straight edge with a beginning and conclusion. It leads to narrow thinking and sub-optimization at the point of action. Round out your thought process. Go where you have never been before. When presented with a financial decision, break down the walls, goals, compartments, and picture how all your dollars can flow free from their different types of accounts and work together to achieve the most significant impact on your bottom line.

For example, there’s massive structure In screenwriting, a formula based on horizontal thinking—a beginning, middle, and end. However, vertical thought, or where a writer breaks away from the procedure, is where great conflict, interest, ideas, actions deepen that captivate audiences. Why would the perception be different for retirement planning?

When performing an exercise on broader thinking with my fiscally responsible couple, we concluded that utilizing an existing home equity line of credit at less than 4% interest to pay off the credit card with a 21% interest rate was an optimum conclusion.  It was a significant improvement never considered because the mental barriers were thick between business and personal accounts. Once they removed the borders, a solution was obvious. 

Grab every opportunity to assess the opportunity (cost). 

I’ve gone overboard with this one. I take lessons seriously from influences like Dan Ariely and share them with anyone who will listen. I now examine the “full circle” of every money choice. I’m obsessed with dollar drag.

Before ordering at an iconic Texas barbecue place, I stepped back and thought of what else I could do with the money during a recent evening out.  Was this the “highest and best use” for my $28 bucks? I took away the walls and permitted the money to flow through other options, including eating at home.

I had to weigh the opportunity cost until I returned full circle to the current choice or stopped on a better solution. Better doesn’t always mean cheaper, either. When it comes to opportunity cost, you need to input much into the calculation, including what your time is worth and other qualitative factors.

If anything, this thought process can allow you to pause before making a purchase or setting a financial retirement goal that, in the long-term, is not that important and also create awareness about choices of greater satisfaction and value. Oh, and I went for the pork ribs and fixings (in case you were wondering).

Think rooftop, not basement.

When you bust down the walls between dollars, you begin to think larger (and wiser). You’re up on the roof looking out and over the landscape of your finances. You begin to see how fungible money is.

Most of the time, we rummage in the basement where it’s dark and narrow because of the laser focus on the problem.  Unfortunately, the longer we concentrate, the less we observe lucrative options hiding in plain sight. That’s why financial decisions should begin from a holistic perspective (roof) and then conclude in the basement or the specific issues at hand.

Hire a navigator.

The navigators exist. The best financial advisers are sensitive to their own emotional biases and can help others navigate through theirs. There’s a synergy and greater satisfaction when a financial partner can help reduce barriers and encourage breakthrough or “a-ha” moments. You always appreciate the highest and best use of a navigator. Your net worth should be affected positively, too.

Retirement Survival Guide, The Post-Pandemic Retirement Survival Guide. Part 2.

Create retirement plan optimization.

Most people do not have a written retirement strategy. One that breaks down mental boundaries and takes into account a holistic view of finances. Those who have a formal, written plan tend to weigh opportunity costs or are, at the least, sensitive to the implications of their financial choices.  Since plans consider the entire financial picture, they direct investors to focus on the big picture. Eventually, emotional walls crumble, and one quickly thinks full circle and able to assess clearly how every decision can affect a retirement start date.

Like the 67-year-old gentleman who underwent formal retirement planning. For every expense cut, he ostensibly gained time. For every year gained away from his job, the richer the picture of his life became. He realized the impact of his decisions immediately through the improved results of his financial plan.

How sub-optimized are your relationships?

As you grow as an individual, consistently optimize relationships to determine who is worthy of your presence.  Surround yourself with those wiser (not just book but life smart) who will motivate you out of your comfort zones. Also, people who can make you laugh and share a lighter perspective will inspire optimization!

Now that you’re in the mood to bust boundaries around money, keep in mind that any account can be a retirement account. Just because it’s not held with your employer or doesn’t have “IRA” in the title doesn’t mean the dollars you save don’t apply to retirement. Society, to a degree, has encouraged mental accounting by sanctioning retirement vs. non-retirement accounts.

As part of your change in thinking, consider all money in one pool. You decide how it flows to its most honorable (and hopefully lucrative) conclusion.

Retirement Survival Guide, The Post-Pandemic Retirement Survival Guide. Part 2.

A recent study has a positive conclusion.

On a positive note, www.EBRI.org outlines overall encouraging results in their long-running Retirement Confidence Survey.  The survey of over 3,000 Americans in January showcases the resiliency of retirement confidence where half of workers and 7 out of 10 retirees are somewhat confident in living comfortably in retirement.

More than half of workers and a third of retirees call debt a problem. Half of workers say their non-mortgage debt negatively impacts their ability to save for retirement in general and 4 in 10 say it negatively impacts their ability to participate in a workplace retirement plan.

The top five actual sources of retirement income are Social Security (92%), followed by personal savings (66%), company retirement plans, and defined contribution plans. The results showcase the importance (devoid of emotion) of making the right decision regarding Social Security claiming strategies. Confidence in Social Security continuing to provide benefits of at least equal value to those received today also reached an all-time high among retirees (72%) and workers (53%).

Medicare and Social Security are essential.

Three-quarters of retirees and two-thirds of workers feel confident they will have enough money to handle medical expenses in retirement. An increase from 2020 among retirees. Also up significantly from last year and reaching an all-time high for both retirees and workers, 3 in 4 retirees and nearly 6 in 10 workers are confident that Medicare will continue to offer benefits of at least equal value to those received today.

As we stress at RIA, Social Security and Medicare are crucial to retirement security regardless of saving and investment habits, so our planners spend much time educating clients on the topics.

Unfortunately, one out of three workers says that the pandemic has negatively impacted their ability to save for retirement. To read the complete survey, click here.

Overall, I believe worker and retiree awareness of expenses and other goals in retirement has reached a new level. And that’s a good thing as it will enhance mental resiliency to switch gears, change course, adjust accordingly and yet still happily define a personal and fulfilling retirement lifestyle even if it’s modest at best.

Here’s what to do next.

Ask yourself the questions: How do I define retirement outside the boundaries of money and investments? What can I do to maintain a fulfilling retirement experience based on simplicity and internal drives of happiness instead of outward displays of wealth? 

We possess the power and skills to craft a retirement lifestyle that’s genuinely and internally worthwhile. It will be perfect, individualistic, and reside within the boundaries of what’s truly important to our well-being.

 


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Richard Rosso, MS, CFP, CIMA is the Head of Financial Planning for RIA Advisors. He is also a contributing editor to the “Real Investment Advice” website and published author of “Random Thoughts Of A Money Muse.”  Follow Richard on Twitter
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2021/04/29
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