By Beth Pinsker
NEW YORK (Reuters) – When you get in your car and fire up the GPS, you know that you will not get very far unless you put in a destination.
Retirement seems to work the same way.
You won’t be able to save enough or make other key decisions if you don’t think about the kind of life you want after you are done working, experts say.
That’s why an emerging school of thought around retirement planning has nothing to do with adjusting your savings rates, allocating your investments or regulating how much money you can spend as you age.
“How can you actually set a plan without knowing what you are trying to accomplish?” says Shlomo Benartzi, a behavioral finance expert who has just released the book “Thinking Smarter: Seven Steps to Your Fulfilling Retirement … and Life.”
AARP, the organization devoted to Americans over 50, is sponsoring a workshop-based program called “Life Reimagined.” It will reach more than 3,000 groups across the United States this year.
AARP’s program puts participants through 90 minutes of thought exercises such as placing yourself on a spiral of life to see how far you have left to go, and figuring out who is in your support network in a short workbook. There is additional material online and in book form, and there are ongoing developments rolling out (http://lifereimagined.aarp.org/).
Discussions, led by specially trained facilitators, are really the soul of the program – talking about your own situation and hearing from others pack a huge emotional punch.
The composition of the groups guides the dynamic. Attend a workshop set up with recent widowers and you get one kind of discussion. Meet with a group of laid-off workers over 50 who are trying to get back in the workforce, and you get a very different atmosphere. Things can get teary, either way.
“If you think about the old model of getting from A through Z, ‘Life Reimagined’ says, start with Z and that is your purpose,” says Emilio Pardo, president of “Life Reimagined” and executive vice president at AARP. “Z is what gets you up in the morning.”
At one workshop Pardo attended, there was a couple that had recently lost their son in a tragic accident. “They were quiet. At the end, one stood up and said, ‘We’ve been in a fog, and this is the first time that I have a reflection that I can have a what’s next in my life.'”
Pardo was moved, as were others. “It gives you an idea that it’s all individualized. We make no judgment. Start where you are,” he says.
If encounter sessions are not your thing, “Thinking Smarter” aims to get you to the same self-realizations in the privacy of your own reading nook. The seven-step plan, developed by Benartzi and Roger Lewin, is not the book to give as a gift at somebody’s retirement party because that may be too late.
“This is for people in the draw-down phase or approaching it – five years from retirement, one year out is a must,” Benartzi says.
The initial questions seem simple: What do I care about? What are my goals and values? What matters most to me?
But in the scientific studies Benartzi conducted to develop the book, people were not coming up with useful answers. So each of the subsequent steps in his plan seeks to hone down those first gut reactions and point out what you missed or what might derail your progress.
Benartzi is best known as one of the architects of 401(k) auto-enrollment, which has had great success in getting U.S. workers to save more for retirement. He developed this new approach because he found behavioral gaps that merely saving blindly for the future did not address.
“By the time people get older, some have saved a lot, some have not, some are healthy, some are not. The solution needs to be tailored,” he says. “The goal of this book is not to make things easy. It’s almost like pushing people as far as you can, but not too far to the point where they give up.”
(Editing by Lauren Young and Ted Botha)