A version of this post appeared on MarketWatch.
“How much does your money weigh?”
If people want to engage me and discuss retirement planning, the request I have is for them to take time and think back to their first memories around money. I want them to re-engage with how their views formed in the past, shape their present actions and motivations.
We undertake journeys together – back to the genesis of financial and investment philosophies.
I maintain a passion for client stories. Money plays a significant role in each; it’s a larger-than-life character in the human chapters of life.
Many of the conversations are emotional fire starters; over time, the discussions, although relevant, share commonalities. There are the ones you never forget, too.
I had someone share how adult money attitudes were shaped by spending much of his childhood summers exploring a neighborhood historic cemetery.
So, when I encountered a retiree who learned about handling finances from a rock, well, I anxiously listened.
He said – “everything I learned financially for me began with a rock.”
You see, this 69 year-old gentleman is the seventh and youngest child of a large family from Oklahoma. At 10, he discovered quiet and space and off a rural route. A wooded, gravelly patch cordoned off less than a mile from the homestead.
A perfect (and creative) location to secure his valuables from prying siblings. Over time it became a sanctuary from the vestiges of conflicts that erupt among large families.
From pre-teen to teen, an elaborate system was devised. A natural roadmap outlined on a napkin and changed often to throw off those who may become a bit curious. It was a plan which marked how valuables including baseball trading cards, cash and coins would be secured underneath a labyrinth of various-sized rocks. On a regular schedule, the hiding rocks were changed up, covered or replaced by holes under several dead trees. On numerous occasions, items were lost. Eaten.
Dug up and carried off by small animals.
He employed cigar boxes, plastic sandwich bags with yellow paper covered wire to secure them, empty Wonder Bread wrappers printed with the memorable red, yellow and blue balloons.
I couldn’t imagine what was learned from all this effort. Well, I had ideas, however, I never heard of anything like this before in over two decades helping others make financial decisions.
As we met a few times, I began to understand how weathered rocks forged this man’s money behavior. How he rolled along through retirement remembering back so many years. The cold weather, the dirty hands, the lost treasures formed invaluable habits.
So, what were the lessons learned?
Dig deep into your financial foundation on a regular basis. Lift the rock, move earth, start digging. Get dirty, expose what’s been hidden. Before financial planning, it’s time to expose the deepest fears about retirement. If frozen by fear, your outlook will suffer; you won’t take actions (even small ones) to get you to retirement; you’ll feel hopeless.
The mind has a tendency to head straight for worst-case scenarios which most of the time, are far from reality. I find when people begin exposing what makes them anxious about retirement and progressively talk openly with those they trust, practical habits are started and forged. Stress is reduced. Make a list of what you fear the most about saving for and living in retirement. Move one rock at a time. Work with a financial professional to create a goals-based, fear-minimizing game plan.
Focus on what weighs heavy on your retirement budget. For the majority of people I counsel, fixed expenses are like boulders which press hard on their abilities to enjoy retirement. I’m not going to make it sound easy to lighten up. It isn’t. It takes some tough decisions. It could mean selling a family homestead to downsize, taking inventory of material possessions to gift, sell or donate.
My greatest friend, mentor and best-selling author James Altucher and his wife Claudia recently dug through and discarded almost every physical item they own – family photos, furniture, clothing. Rows of green plastic garbage bags out to the curb for trash pickup (I saw the photos). Ok, I’m not advising to go to this extreme: I was shocked myself. However, the lesson here is to devise a strategy that works for you to minimize overhead expenses; a liquidation and downsizing mindset is empowering. It allows you to take great control over cash flow, relieves the pressure of big fixed costs throughout retirement.
Move mental rocks and check on things. Let’s face it: Many people think of their company retirement plans as dark, mysterious holes. They may salary defer the maximum contribution yet still have little knowledge about available investment choices, how money is currently allocated or they fail to rebalance holdings on a scheduled basis. In other words, to be an active saver is admirable however, once earnings are syphoned into retirement plans, many of us grow passive about digging into them and shifting the location of financial treasure. The money is buried so deep under the rock, it’s forgotten. It might as well be lost.
A company retirement account is most likely your greatest liquid asset, so it makes sense to check on its progress. Make a point to dig under the surface at least annually. Compare your current allocations to choices provided by your employer and examine how investments are divided. Sell down what’s done the best and reallocate proceeds into underperforming asset classes.
For example, in 2014 U.S. or domestic-based large-company stocks and bonds were outperformers. The majority of financial “pundits” were touting how in 2015, domestic-based stocks would continue a winning run. So far, it’s apparent that international stocks are improving due to favorable valuations and aggressive action by the European Central Bank to purchase bonds, much like our Federal Reserve has done in the past.
Get your hands dirty and expose yourself to uncomfortable conditions. I partner with several retirees who refuse to undertake actions that temporarily feel unpleasant. For a few, avoiding proper estate planning (who really wants to deal with their own mortality?), failing to embrace healthy lifestyle choices like annual health physicals, and transferring potential devastating financial risks though the use of insurance, has led to family stress and negative outcomes for retirement portfolios.
A roadmap based on maintenance of health, proper estate planning and use of insurance where it’s needed, can make a tremendous positive impact on the quality of retirement.
Through the years, this gentleman who learned so much from rocks and dirt as a child, started to understand how keeping the location of his buried treasure so secret, was not such a terrific idea. He began to comprehend how secrecy may lead to great loss. He has a trusted partner, his wife, who keeps him accountable for fitness goals, regular meetings with his financial advisor (me), his board-certified estate planner and a physician for annual head-to-toe checkups.
Recently, one of his grandsons, knowing the well-told story of the rocks, began to do some digging at the same location near the homestead (still in the family). After months of work he unearthed a plastic bag. In it was a 1955 Topps Baseball Box made of tin with 10 trading cards inside including one of legendary player Ernie Banks.
There are lessons right in front of all of us. Some we can trip over (literally).
If we dig deep and often, potential dangers can be uncovered, avoided; treasures can be revealed.
The graveled road of retirement can be a blessing or a curse.
A lesson is to unearth early on what concerns you the most and expose them to bright lights from trusted professionals and loved ones.
Your retirement path will be a challenge, but like a rock, you can weather it and remain structurally intact for decades.
And keep rolling…