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3 ways to combat retirement saving reluctance

David Blanchett, CFA  |  12 Jul 2019Text size  Decrease  Increase  |  
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These saving and spending adjustments can help overcome the natural ambivalence many of us have to tucking away money for retirement, says Morningstar's head of retirement research.

My colleague Christine Benz talks a lot about bucket portfolios for retirees. Buckets are a form of mental accounting, where you divide your portfolio into sub-portfolios (or buckets) based on when you need the money.

I've seen this approach work for retirees who were uncomfortable taking on a given level of risk when it was presented as a single portfolio, but were fine when it was broken out across accounts – even though the total risk level was the same.

You can use mental accounting to help make better decisions across a variety of domains, and I recently had a personal experience with buckets when it comes to saving.

My wife, a veterinarian, recently started working again as an independent contractor after taking some time at home with our four young children.

I'm always looking for efficient ways to save more for retirement, so I let her know that I'd like to create a solo pension account – the equivalent of a superannuation fund in Australia – and that we'd likely save all of her earnings for the year in this vehicle.

To be clear, we'd just be reallocating money to this account that we would use to pay down our still relatively hefty student loan debt – and all of our accounts are joint accounts.

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Still, I think my recommendation sounded to her like I was stealing her hard-earned salary!
While my wife understood that this was a strategy to reduce our tax bill, the way I had proposed the savings decisions – describing it as "all her earnings" – made it sound relatively cruel. With the benefit of hindsight, I could have phrased it better.

Her reaction, or something similar, is likely common and can help explain why many people are not saving enough for retirement today. If you're having trouble saving for retirement, here are some tactics that might make it a little less painful.

1. Save half - or a similarly high level - of salary increases

Things are tight right now – I get it. When you receive a raise, though, don't spend it all. Let's say your gross salary is $130,000 and as per Australian regulations, your employer is making the 9.5 per cent SG contribution ($12,350). That may not be enough, depending on your lifestyle expectations for retirement. But if you get a 10 per cent raise (in one year) and add half of this to your super, you increase your retirement saving rate by more than 50 per cent, and still have an extra $6,500 to spend.

2. Pay down debt

If you aren't motivated to save for retirement, focus on paying down debt,like credit cards, student loans, or even your mortgage. Retirement is not always easy to save for because it can be so far off in the future. Paying down debt might actually make more sense than saving for retirement, depending on the interest rate. So, if retirement doesn't do it for you, pick something else that does. Hopefully, when you get in the groove of paying off your debts, you can pivot and save some for retirement.

3. Visualise yourself in retirement

How much of your vision is negotiable? That is, does your beach villa have to be 300 square metres? How would you feel instead about a hut on the beach in another country? Know yourself and use that knowledge to get a clear sense of what life in retirement might cost you. Then do some research. How much does that villa cost? Saving requires sacrifice, and sacrifice can be easier when you know what you're really saving for. What will you trade today (that is, live without) to get the retirement you want?

Realise that saving for retirement isn't fun or easy, but that you might be able to trick yourself into doing it - like hiding vegetables in a dish so you don't taste them.

How you think about it can potentially make a big difference, too. Try to fall in love with your vision of retirement and it will spur you on to better decisions. Your future self (and your spouse) will thank you!

A version of this article first appeared on Morningstar.com. It has been edited for an Australian audience. 

David Blanchett, CFA is Director of Retirement Research with Morningstar Investment Management in Chicago.

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