Different Ideas of Retirement Require Different Messages

February 20, 2014 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - Think people are either pre- or post-retirement? Think again. Both include a spectrum of lifestyles and financial situations, research says, that need specific messaging and support from plan sponsors.

A study about retirement funding and household finance from Hearts & Wallets LLC, a financial research company that studies consumer savings and investing behaviors, finds fewer than half of current retirees use personal assets for retirement income. “It’s not possible to understand retirees as a homogenous group,” says Laura Varas, partner at Hearts & Wallets. “Some have pensions, others simply haven’t saved enough to produce substantial income, and still others, of all wealth levels, are successfully funding their lifestyles with different types of savings or annuities.”

According to Hearts & Wallets various sources of income may include pensions, part-time work, higher or lower levels of spending and different real estate or family situations.

Instead of simply categorizing households as pre- or post-retirement, the firm’s Retirement Reachability Ratio (RRR) takes a deep dive into retirement and lifestyle behaviors and attitudes. Hearts & Wallets calls those who stop work altogether at traditional retirement age Leisure Pacers. Balancers are those who want to work part-time or cycle between work and leisure, while people who say they want to work until they drop are known as Full Steam Aheads.

“Two thirds of people want to be Balancers or Full Steam Aheads, but they are shown a picture of full retirement they do not connect with,” says Chris Brown, partner at Hearts & Wallets. These miscued messages quickly elicit responses such as “This publication isn’t for me. Why should I read any further?”

According to Brown, “The message needs to tie to [participants’] visions of life as a senior citizens. If you tell people they don’t have enough to retire but they do, you’ve lost all credibility. People may know that they don’t need $3 million to retire—they’d be happy with a 60% replacement rate.”

Because they do not have all of participants’ household information about other potential sources of income, plan sponsors are in a tough spot, says Brown. But, knowing their planned retirement lifestyles helps color the message. And plan sponsors can encourage all groups to take advantage of the ability to make catch-up contributions starting at age 50.

Those facing retirement without a pension are more likely to move into a category such as Full Steam Ahead or Balancer. The message that would resonate with these participants might not be about a traditional retirement, but about scaling back on work, managing finances in their senior years, or employment and work-life balance. They should reflect the real life of these people, he says.

Brown suggests plan sponsors also work with recordkeepers and plan advisers to make sure communication materials and statements reflect the needs and attitudes of older participants who may not want to retire yet.

Planning a Social Security strategy—when to take it, how much can be depended on—along with how to structure an income stream in retirement are important education needs. Some participants age 55 might be three years from retirement, and others much further, Brown notes. But, “how can you decide when you’re going to retire before you figure [those things] out?” he queries.

“Hearts & Wallets expects retirement income from personal assets will grow in the years ahead,” Varas says. “But it will likely be a long time before most retirees generate substantial portions of their income from personal assets, not because this income source is unreliable, but because people’s lifestyles are so diverse."

According to Hearts & Wallets’ study, in 2013, more households (58%) say they plan to use personal assets for retirement income—especially withdrawals from retirement accounts. Eighty percent of “Late Careers,” Hearts & Wallets’ term for the group of households with a primary breadwinner age 53 to 64 who does not plan to stop full-time work within five years, plan to use personal assets in retirement. The median Late Career household, however, is only at an RRR of 55% (percentage of goal assets). Only one in five (21%) is at 80% percent or more of their self-stated asset goal.

Hearts & Wallets based its data on nearly 5,000 U.S. households, including 3,500 households ages 53 and older, and approximately 2,000 households in retirement.