Saturday, October 02, 2010

Scale "Model"

I’ve long had an issue with weight scales, for the perhaps obvious reason that, these days, they frequently deliver a message I’d just as soon not receive. See, even when I’m feeling pretty good about the way I look and feel, those scales generally remind me that is at a weight that I know is not “appropriate” for my height.

Over the years, I have rationalized that gap in any number of ways; that those scales are frequently inaccurate, that the definitions of “appropriate” are skewed, even that I’m wearing clothes (or shoes) at the moment that are throwing things off (hey, I’ve got pretty big feet). But since I know, deep down, that those are, after all, mere rationalizations for avoiding the truth, these days I pretty much just treat stepping on scales as I would stepping on a rusty nail—which is to say, I avoid them at all costs…at least until I manage to get back on a regular exercise regimen.

My sense has long been that that is how participants approach the issue of figuring out how much they need to save for retirement. It’s not that they don’t know they should know that number, and not always that they just don’t have time to deal with it. Mostly, they have a sense that the number will be larger than they would like it to be, and that, coupled with a sense that the savings they have accumulated will be smaller than it is “supposed” to be—well, let’s just say they don’t want to be reminded that their retirement plan health isn’t good.

There was some of that in the “National 401(k) Evaluation” published by Financial Engines (see Report Highlights Savings Gaps, Ways To Close Them). The report was, in fact, replete with signs that most participants in the sampling are not in very good shape when it comes to retirement, with roughly three-fourths not on track to replace 70% of their pre-retirement income at age 65. When you consider that about a third have badly allocated portfolios (the report somewhat euphemistically terms these “inefficient”), and that nearly 40% are not contributing enough to receive the full match—well, let’s just say that there are some obvious reasons for the gap.

IMHO, it’s more than a bit ironic that studies routinely show that participants who take the time to make that retirement assessment feel better—and are more confident—about their retirement preparations than those who don’t. Of course, it could be that the only ones taking the time to check things out are those who are already reasonably confident that they’ll get a good result; unfortunately, I don’t recall ever seeing a connection between pre-assessment confidence and post-assessment (nor, for that matter, do these confidence assessments typically correlate confidence with savings that justify that sentiment).

Still, I like to think that those who take the time to do the assessment find out that things are perhaps not as hopeless as they had thought—and that, following the assessment, they walk away with a specific action plan for either staying on track, or closing the gap between needs and reality.

Inside the Financial Engines report there are a couple of examples that illustrate the point. One is a 45-year-old participant making $50,000/year who currently has a $50,000 account balance and who is deferring 4% in a portfolio that is overly risky—a combination that the report says will leave him 27% below his idea goal (if the market performs “typically”). But the report notes that if this participant reallocates at an “appropriate” risk level, they can narrow the gap to 23%; if they do that AND save 2% more per year, they can cut the gap to 14%; and if they do both AND delay retirement two years—well, they’re on track. Or, this participant could simply save 8% more a year to achieve the same gap-closing result.

Now, like with my bathroom scale, you can quibble with the assumptions, but the important thing, IMHO, isn’t taking the time to figure out you have a gap—most of us probably have that sense before we ever sit down with our retirement plan statement. Rather, it’s the plan that comes out of that process—the plan that helps us get back where we need to be—that not only helps us feel better, but gives us a reason for that feeling. And, like that bathroom scale model, the longer you put that off, the longer that “recovery” will take – and the harder it will be.

—Nevin E. Adams, JD

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