IMHO: Catching Your Drift

October 19, 2011 ( - I recently found myself driving in an unfamiliar city without the aid of a GPS (global positioning system). 


Sadly, I had become so accustomed to having that device available, I hadn’t even taken the time to print out instructions from any of the usual Internet sources, and while there were maps in the vehicle, none were of the area in question.  That didn’t matter, I told myself—because I had made that drive before, had a pretty good idea of where I needed to be and, armed with a pretty reliable memory for such things, I set out with only a little trepidation.

Just about the time I was getting pretty confident in my ability to navigate without all the high-tech “crutches,” I was thrown a series of curves.  The primary route was closed due to construction, the rerouting didn’t seem to take into account where I was trying to get to, an unexpected one-way street suddenly emerged going the “wrong” way, and then I found myself directed onto a parkway whose designers had apparently never contemplated the need of a misdirected driver to pull off and turn around.

In just a matter of minutes, I went from coasting along cool and confident to a state of growing concern (it felt suspiciously like panic) as I began to be drawn what I was sure was miles off my designed course, and heading further away all the time.

Then I remembered that I DID have a GPS on my phone.  One that, admittedly, lacked the calm, reassuring voice of the more traditional version giving me step-by-step directions, but it was something.  However, it wasn’t the ability of the device to offer routing instructions that I found most useful—the screen was too small (and my need to watch traffic too great) to do much with that feature. 

The feature that saved me that day was the blue dot—that element of the GPS that, with a simple touch, will show where you are.  That information, presented on the map of my surroundings, allowed me to not only find where I was, but to then visualize where I needed to be and begin heading in that direction.  Oh, I missed a turn or two after that, but thanks to that locator “dot,” I quickly saw when I made those mistakes and was able to remedy them before going miles out of my way.

Most participants don’t set out on their retirement savings journey with a confident sense that they know where they are going, much less any real sense of how to get there.  Nonetheless, by the time they sit through an education session (or two), make their way through the attendant materials, and try to complete the requisite enrollment forms, they may well feel that they are heading in the right direction. 

And then, something happens—it doesn’t have to be an “event” like the financial crisis of 2008 (though it can be); sometimes it’s as simple as just not having had the time to pay attention to your account while the market decides to go on a losing (or winning) streak, or it can simply be a result of the preoccupations that come with those ordinary, but often unplanned, changes in your daily (and financial) life.  It can be any of a series of things that pop up just about the time you think you have nothing but smooth sailing ahead; the things that crop up to suddenly “close for construction” the path you had thought you’d be able to follow for a long and uneventful journey. 

At times like that—and, arguably, at any time—it’s important for participants—and plan sponsors—to have some kind of idea not only of where they want to be, but where they are relative to that destination. 

Because, after all, it’s a lot easier to stay—and get back—on track the sooner you find out you’ve begun to drift.