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Retirement Conversations

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Try asking these questions at a social gathering: “How much money will you need to enjoy a comfortable retirement? How much does that mean you should you be saving and investing each month?” Amazingly, these are questions most American workers cannot answer. According to the Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI), 58 percent of American workers admit that they have not calculated how much money they will need to retire comfortably. Moreover, of those who did do a retirement calculation, 8 percent said they arrived at an answer by guessing.

Why are so many people in denial and uncertain about their futures? Lee Eisenberg, author of the bestselling book The Number: A Completely Different Way to Think About the Rest of Your Life, says the standard advice (“pay yourself first” and save at least 10 percent to 15 percent of your income) fails to answer the real question that could make the difference between retirement success and failure. According to Eisenberg (, this question is “what am I saving for?”

In his general session presentation at the Financial Planning Association’s 2006 national convention, Eisenberg challenged advisors to prod clients and the general public into thinking about and planning for their futures: “Basically, most of them see financial planning and planners as a blur. It’s up to you to clear the fog.” Eisenberg claims that most people suffer from “IDD” or Inspiration Deficit Disorder, a condition characterized by inertia and fear. “This could be why so many boomers are so allergic to the process of disciplined financial planning,” he says.

The day after Eisenberg gave his talk, he co-facilitated a handful of small discussion groups for nearly 80 planners in total. One, co-led with industry thought leader George Kinder, CFP, centered around the life planning revolution brewing in the financial services industry. Another, which I had the privilege of co-leading, was called “How to Generate Better Conversations with Current and Prospective Clients.” All participants agreed that they, as financial advisors, are more likely to create successful planning relationships by drawing out their clients’ true passions. “This is one of the reasons that George and I wrote Lighting the Torch,” says Susan Galvan, CEO and co-founder of the Kinder Institute of Life Planning ( “Planners know they need to be doing something more, something beyond just crunching the numbers, but they’re not sure how. They need a methodology to follow.”


Advisors have embraced various methods for helping their clients articulate their goals and focus on realizing their most cherished life dreams. Most of the methods center on asking better questions. Bill Bachrach’s Values-Based Financial Planning system (, for instance, proposes that planners start with the question “What’s important about money to you?” When the individual responds, you record the answer and ask, “What’s important about that to you?” You follow this stepping-stone progression until the client feels she has reached the pinnacle of her core values, or the heart of the matter. Kinder has long been famous for “The Three Questions,” a conversational technique that helps clients discover their “heart’s core” by thinking through a number of scenarios designed to help them experience deep levels of emotion ranging from joy and hope to fear and regret.

“However you do it, you must get to the real motivators,” says Richard Junk, CLU, CFP, an independent financial advisor affiliated with Securities America. “A 65-year-old who is retiring today will live 15 to 20 years in retirement, on average. And, thanks to advances in medical science, lifetimes are only going to expand. The reality is that many people will spend a third of their life retired. This creates not just financial issues, but personal and lifestyle issues as well. As professional advisors, we must be ready to ask tough questions and respond appropriately to both the emotions and the answers,” Junk says.

With 32 years’ experience in the financial services industry, the last 20 as an RIA based in Hunt Valley, Md., Junk has built a successful business serving executives at companies such as Northrop Grumman and Verizon as well as working with school administrators covered under the State of Maryland Retirement System in the Baltimore area. Like Eisenberg, Junk thinks that America’s largest generation could be in trouble. “Too many Americans are going to have a rude awakening at a time when they can no longer work and generate an income,” he says. “I truly feel that many people could end up living with their children because they may simply run out of money in retirement.”


The overshadowing problem, according to Junk, is that luxuries have become necessities. “The only way to get someone to become personally responsible for their financial future is to spark something inside them,” he says. “Sometimes the only way to move them off the dime is to stimulate a sense of fear-based urgency. Once they’re moving in the right direction, a motivating vision should be the anchor.”

Junk uses questions like these to generate meaningful conversations with current and prospective clients:

o How much money do you think you’ll need in retirement?

o How much do you need to save to meet your goals?

o What are you saving for? Why?

o What will you do with your time and energy in retirement?

o How do you see your golden years unfolding?

o If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do today?

Rick Kent, ChFC, CFP, CFEd, a long-time financial advisor and founder of the Merit Retirement Advantage (, says it’s essential for advisors to build relationships with people while they are still working: the earlier, the better. “This is an underserved segment of the population,” he says. “Many advisors are reluctant to advise employees on their 401(k) assets; historically, it’s been hard to deliver advice and be compensated adequately for the value you provide. But if you can get in there and motivate individuals to start saving and planning early, you can not only create a pipeline of loyal clients, you can do a world of good.”

Kent figured out how to streamline the process and work efficiently with employees in Atlanta-based companies such as Bell South. He has bottled his system in the hopes that other advisors will be motivated to serve this virtually untapped market. Advisors who join Kent’s network receive training, back office support and a suite of communication tools. “The MAP Process lies at the heart of our client service model. Two key elements, the MAP Profile System and the MAP Action Plan, make it easy for the advisor to gather information and outline an appropriate course of action for the client,” Kent says.


Kent recommends advisors start with a simple request: “Let’s begin by talking about you and your family.” Advisors should probe to obtain vital data on spouses, children and grandchildren.

“Also inquire about parents to determine if they are still living and if support is required,” Kent suggests. “Most everyone loves to talk about their kids and families, so this gets the prospective client sharing in a comfortable and non-threatening way. But the best conversations normally occur after you’ve covered some of the basics and established rapport.”

Kent says the most telling answers come from asking questions like these:

o Thinking of everything you have done in your adult life, what job or leisure activities have you enjoyed most?

o If you wake up in the middle of the night, what do you think about? What opportunities or concerns keep you awake?

o Related to your retirement, what are your primary issues?

o If you had to change careers tomorrow, what strengths would you bring to your new career? What kind of opportunity do you think would best utilize your strengths? What do you see as your greatest opportunity?

o Describe your ideal retirement. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you see? Would you work part- or full-time? Would you volunteer, pursue a hobby, etc?

o On a scale of 1-10, where “1″ is very little and “10″ is an extreme amount, how much satisfaction do you get from your job now?

The answers are as important as ever. “Financial advisors must rally to the cause and make as much noise as possible about the importance of retirement planning,” Richard Junk says. “Americans must curb their consumer spending habits and save with a passion for the future. That’s a hard pill to swallow unless you’ve got a compelling reason to defer today’s pleasures for tomorrow’s rewards.”


Marie Swift is president of Impact Communications, a marketing and communications firm for independent advisors; see


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