I recently kicked off a workshop by asking participants to introduce themselves giving both their name and age.  Of course no one volunteered.   I relieved the tension by admitting I was only kidding but did ask them to think about how age can change pre-conceived notions about retirement.     

We've all heard the birthday and age clichés:   "It's just a number;" "My age doesn't define me;" etc.  Whether you believe those old saws or not, numbers do create stereotypical pictures and assumptions about everything, including accepted ideas about when a person can retire and whether or not they will outlive their money.  Both of these questions can be major stress factors for people during the retirement planning process.  Why is it that people can and do look beyond their age when it comes living a full and uninhibited life before they retire, yet allow arbitrary retirement calculations and other uncontrollable factors to define and sometimes inhibit their life in retirement?

Like many of you, I make my living selling advice and running these same calculations for clients. However, in addition to employing these traditional tools, I have also created several ways to reduce the stress that planning numbers can create among clients in favor of developing a more fulfilling relationships with clients.  This article explores three simple things advisors can do to reduce retirement planning stress and shift from a pure numbers-based approach to more of a total client wellness approach.

If Age Doesn't Define You Why Does Money?
How can the age question be used to reduce stress and counteract retirement stereotypes?   I reveal to my audience that just as age doesn't define a person neither will savings and investments truly define their retirement.  This corresponds to fact that, generally, nothing a financial advisor has ever told them or sold them gets mentioned at their funeral. I've been to my share of funerals and I've never heard an advisor's name mentioned during the service.  There may be a nice bouquet of flowers (in an attempt to convince the beneficiaries to keep those funds with their company) but financial matters are never included as part of how a person wants to be remembered.   

The importance of this total client approach is to help people move away from defining their retirement only in terms of dollars and cents (numbers) and focus instead on what they want to do with their other assets such as their time, energy, knowledge when their working days are over.  By changing the framework of retirement planning to include these other, equally critical, aspects of retirement, the process becomes a more enjoyable and flexible one instead of being driven by the fear, shame, or guilt that numbers too often engender.   

Vacationing Vs. Marriage
Which leads to my second strategy for reducing retirement planning stress:  replace guilt and shame with positive real-life examples and experiences that shed light on what retirement planning and retirement itself can mirror.  Currently, there's a guilt / shame tactic based on "people spend more time planning a two week vacation that they do their retirement."  Well, no kidding!  Does this really surprise you?  Said in the wrong way, though, it's easy to make someone feel bad about their planning or saving efforts.  Unfortunately, this kind of attitude has become synonymous with our industry.  It puts clients on guard and causes stress and anxiety when working with an advisor.  

In fact, retirement and financial planning have nothing to do with vacation planning and should never be compared to it.  Instead, I use the wedding day analogy to change perceptions about retirement.  Imagine that if, on your wedding day, your entire married life had to be all planned out before you said "I do."  How would that be going for you right now?  We know that, just like a marriage, retirement is a journey, during which good and bad things will happen.  And just as you have to make adjustments and changes throughout married life, you'll likely have to make sacrifices and changes during retirement.  We all know that retirement can change in an instant, whether it's a market bubble bursting or something more personal such as a major medical incident, or a life ending scenario.  The point is no one has to have everything figured out by the time they retire.  All that's needed is a commitment to a planning process that, like life itself, remains flexible. 

Best Retirement Plan Ever
Advisors can also help clients reduce financial stress by introducing humorous stories and anecdotes into the process.  One of my favorites is the urban legend about England's Bristol Zoo, where there is a parking lot for 150 cars and 8 buses. For 25 years, its parking fees were managed by a very pleasant attendant. The fees for cars were $2.25 and $11.00 for buses.  One day, after 25 solid years of never missing a day of work, the attendant didn't show up; so the zoo management called the city council and asked them to send them another parking agent. The council did some research and replied that the parking lot was the zoo's own responsibility. The zoo advised the council that the attendant was a city employee. The city council responded that the zoo lot attendant had never been on the city payroll.  

Meanwhile, sitting somewhere off the coast of Spain in a beautiful villa is a man who'd apparently had a ticket machine installed completely on his own and then had simply begun to show up every day, collecting the parking fees, estimated at about $900 for 25 years.  Assuming seven days a week, this amounts to approximately 11 million US dollars... and no one even knows his name.

I have used this as a blog post and an email blast with the subject "Best Retirement Plan Ever."  I simply suggest that while I can't endorse the strategy I can endorse the smiles and laughter it creates.  When I share the story in workshops, I suggest that attendees leave me with their email address so I can forward them a copy of the story which has worked well in building my e-newsletter base. 

Bottom line?  Numbers can cause stress and dilute the retirement planning process as well as the quality of retirement life.  By moving away from a dollars-and-cents only approach, you'll foster positive long-term relationships based on more than financial advice and market returns.  

Robert Laura, president of SYNERGOS Financial group, a Michigan-based RIA, is the author of Naked Retirement and is the co-founder of the RetirementProject.org. A regular contributor to fa-mag.com, he provides Retirement Wellness Workshops for individuals, organizations, and employers. He can be reached at rl@robertlaura.com.