To be a retirement savings pro, act as if ‘someday’ is today


While on vacation recently in the Abaco Islands, on the outer rim of the Bahamas, I found myself on an important mission: taking the golf cart to the local market to restock our dwindling supply of the necessary ingredients for piña coladas.

I was stopped in my tracks en route by a welcome sign announcing a new resident’s beachside home. It read: “Someday Came.”

The obvious implication is that these folks decided to act on their “Yeah, I’m gonna do that someday” daydreams.

But it raises many questions, right?

Who are these people? What’s their story, financial and otherwise? Did they hammer this sign into the sand after scrimping and saving, finally realizing their retirement dream following a lifetime of toil? Or are they the professionally mobile couple with young kids you see on HGTV’s “Caribbean Life,” who decided they’d just had enough of the rat race?

I’m glad I don’t have the answers, because the big question for the rest of us is worthy of consideration:

How do we define our “someday”? How do you define yours?

There’s an answer that the financial services industry (and the U.S. government) has prescribed for you. That’s the one where you work your butt off, make as much money as you can, save as much as you can and then glide into a distant, worry-free utopia called “retirement.”

Well, the baby boomers were the first generation to try this, and statistics suggest the “traditional retirement” experiment has been an abominable failure.

Why? Hyperbolic discounting.

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It’s a term used primarily in the field of behavioral finance, and it’s defined as “the tendency for people to increasingly choose a smaller/sooner reward over a larger/later reward, as the delay occurs sooner rather than later in time.”

Humans, as it turns out, aren’t very good at delaying gratification. I believe such discounting is even further compounded in saving for retirement, because the goal involves hypothetical numbers and an unknown future while our present temptations promise immediate satisfaction.

Now, the benefits of long-term, compounded investing cannot — must not — be ignored or abandoned, if only because the reality of recreating an income in retirement demands a both concerted and consistent effort. But is it possible that we can do a better job of saving for a seemingly distant future by introducing the perceived satisfaction of that future existence into the present?

Yes, I believe so, and here are three ways we might work to that end:

1. Change the way we talk about retirement. In a laudable effort to simplify retirement goal-setting, we’ve reduced it to a single number — the number” that we need to have saved at a point in the future to sufficiently care for our needs. But, especially for someone early in their retirement savings journey, a number such as $2 million, $3 million or $5 million or more seems arbitrary and out of reach. It’s too far out there in the future to effectively value today.

However, we’ve learned that one of the reasons some cultures have a tendency to do a better job saving than Americans is because they don’t have that language for the future. “Languages that don’t have a future tense strongly correlate with higher savings,” said behavioral economist Keith Chen.

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