Have you ever wished that you could tell a client what they really needed to hear? To just let it all out in hopes the message is received loud and clear? What if you said, “Sure, you can retire next year as long as you plan on shacking up with your kids and eating ramen noodles for the rest of your life,” or “Don’t waste your money on long-term care insurance or life insurance; be a burden on your family instead and make their lives miserable,” or better yet, “Let the government take care of you; what’s the big deal about bed sores and being given the wrong medications anyway?”  

Comments like that might make a funny hidden camera TV show, but any financial advisor with such a raw and shocking style probably doesn’t have a long list of clients. Still, financial advisors can add a little shock and awe to their planning discussions without offending clients, and in the process, can help clients perceive retirement in a more realistic light, enabling them to better prepare for the downs as well as the ups.  

In general, mainstream definitions of retirement are so remote from what can, and actually does, occur during retirement that I suggest financial advisors and their clients look at it like an iceberg, where 90 percent of what takes place is unknown and usually unplanned for. Therefore, advisors need to help clients look below the surface, and in certain instances, shock clients into planning for more than just its financial aspects. Think of the retirement planning process as akin to the journey Ebenezer Scrooge endured on his way to getting his priorities straight.  

Clients can easily become disillusioned about retirement through slick commercials and brochures depicting long romantic walks on the beach, worldwide travel, spending time with the grandkids, golfing or just relaxing with a good book or cup of coffee, but advisors have the opportunity to step in and combat those mythical ideals with a dose of reality. Doing so gives clients the opportunity to prepare mentally and emotionally instead of just assuming everything about retirement is going to be fun and easy. Some of those harsh retirement realities include:

1)  Just because you could be retired for 30 to 40 years doesn’t mean you will. Once you retire, the only guarantee is that at some point during your golden years you will die.

2)  An existing problem with a spouse, family member, medical condition or your own mental health won’t magically vanish once you retire. Actually, these issues have a tendency to get worse because you have more time to think about them, and there are fewer distractions to keep them at bay.

3)  On the day you finally retire, the workplace identity you spent years creating will quickly fade. When you’re ringing the bell for the Salvation Army at Christmas time, passersby will have no idea whether you’re on work release from jail or a former executive, school principal or design engineer.

4)  Your chance of becoming addicted to alcohol, narcotics or prescription drugs increases because it’s less likely you’ll be held accountable, and every day can seem like “the weekend.”

5)  Your family and friends may not have the same vision of retirement as you. They might move away or spend less time with you, because without a job or regular schedule, you aren’t the person you used to be and they may seek your company less frequently. As somebody once said, “I married you for better or worse, but not for lunch everyday.”

6)  If you don’t enter retirement with healthy eating and exercise habits, you’re likely to gain more weight. Over time, you’ll become less flexible, more sedentary and at higher risk for debilitating medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and so on.  

7)  You may end up living longer than retirees in previous generations, but that doesn’t necessarily mean those extra years will be healthier. Natural aging will do at least some of the following:
• Weaken your immune system.
• Diminish your sense of taste and smell.
• Make your heart muscle less efficient.
• Shrink your bones in size and density.
• Cause frequent constipation.
• Diminish bladder control
• Increase frequency of urination
• Impair your memory
• Slow your reaction time
• Reduce your ability to produce tears, making you more sensitive to glare
• Cause dry mouth and pull your gums back from your teeth
• Make you susceptible to bruises and wrinkles
• Alter your sexual needs, patterns and performance.

Those possibilities may be disheartening and even too dark to discuss with clients, but that’s exactly where the opportunities for advisors are. One of my favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quotes sums up the situation perfectly: “Only in the darkness can you truly see the stars.”   Retirement definitely isn’t all peaches and cream, but it isn’t all doom-and-gloom either. Your job as a financial advisor is to give clients a broad perspective so they aren’t disappointed or disillusioned when they retire.  

When was the last time you were hugely disappointed? I learned a valuable lesson one summer about anticipation and disappointment. I was working in an auto plant where two wily veterans who had taken me under their wings ate lunch with me every day. One day Ron, the senior mechanic, told us his wife had made his favorite meal and he had leftover stew for lunch. I didn’t know what was in it, but I’d never seen anyone so excited about his lunch.
When the lunch whistle finally blew, Ron walked his prized stew to the microwave like he was carrying the original U.S. Constitution or something. Having turned a plastic butter tub into his personal Tupperware, Ron methodically put his container of stew into the microwave, pressed start and joyfully began to whistle and tap his toes like he didn’t have a care in the world, until three minutes later when he opened the lid, expecting to inhale the sweet smell of stew. We hadn’t paid much attention until we heard a loud thud. Ron had suddenly chucked his precious stew into the garbage and was walking away, visibly upset. “What the #$*& are you doing?” asked his shop buddy. Ron shook his head and said, “I grabbed the wrong container this morning and just microwaved an entire tub full of butter.” We almost fell off our chairs laughing, and for rest of the summer called him names like “Butterfingers” and “Butterball.”
After all these years, that story still makes me laugh, and it illustrates an important lesson for advisors who have clients heading into retirement. Obviously, Ron could have avoided the disappointment by simply checking to see what was in that container. However, his assumptions, hopes and anticipation made him blind until lunchtime brought it all crashing down. And that can be the case when people crack open the container of retirement and it turns out to be something different than the perfect little time and place they had imagined and expected. Ron just got stuck with no lunch, but if you’re playing the same game with a client’s retirement, the results can be earthshaking.
Retirement today can carry with it many thoughts, images and ideas that may not reflect what life may actually be like. Few people realize that retirement is like a massive iceberg, where what’s below the surface can derail an otherwise perfectly anticipated retirement if they don’t take the time to plan for more than just the financial aspects. Advisors willing to shock clients with a dose of reality can help them see what’s not so obvious, and avoid some of the disappointments and unwelcomed surprises that may be a part of their golden years.
Whether your clients can benefit from a basic list or discussion about retirement realities or need something more eye-opening like Ron’s liquefied lunch to gain some new perspective, any form of retirement shock therapy can help advisors and clients alike better prepare for all that retirement has in store.

Follow Robert on Twitter @robertlaura. He is the president of SYNEGOS Financial group, co-founder of RetirementProject.org, creator of the Laddered Dividend Portfolio and author of Naked Retirement. He can be reached at rl@robertlaura.com.