How do financial planners add value to workers seeking to retire?

The November 2014 issue of the Journal of Financial Planning published an article by two professors, Terrance K. Martin Jr., Ph.D.; and Michael Finke, Ph.D., CFP® “A Comparison of Retirement Strategies and Financial Planner Value”

They conducted a study to determine if – and how – financial planners made a difference in how well people retired.

Financial literacy and planning is much more important today than ever before.  The last two decades has seen a dramatic shift in how people prepare for retirement. A generation ago, most employees worked for companies that provided pensions as an employee benefit. The company took care of investing for their employees’ retirement. The employee was guaranteed a pension income when they retired.

That’s no longer the case. The responsibility for funding retirement has shifted from employers to employees. The (defined benefit) pension is out, the (defined contribution) 401(k) is in. But that’s a problem.

“Only 38 percent of all private workers participate in employer sponsored defined contribution plans, and just 14 percent of Americans are confident in their ability to retire comfortably.”

“Greater employee responsibility for funding retirement means that individuals, rather than pension professionals, must estimate how much saving is needed to provide an adequate retirement income … A lack of financial knowledge and sophistication among many American workers may contribute to inefficient retirement savings … Most American households cannot maintain a constant level of consumption in retirement with their current retirement savings … and one-third of retirees obtain 90 percent of their income from Social Security, according to 2012 data from the Social Security Administration.

The study was intended to determine what value financial planners brought to workers saving for retirement.  There were three main benefits.

  1. Professional financial planners can help households accurately estimate the amount of retirement income needed to fund household retirement goals.
    • Most people have heard the old adage that if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there. Without a specific goal most people save too little. Studies have shown that young households aged 35 to 45 save 9% to 19% less than they should. Another study estimated that the median household needs to save 20% more than they do.
  2. A financial planner can provide a financial plan that provides the steps needed to meet a retirement goal, review progress regularly, and make appropriate adjustments.
    • Planning for retirement begins with an analysis of current assets, the mix of assets needed to achieve the retirement financial income, and the savings rate to meet the goal. The financial planner will use an investment strategy consistent with economic theory and “help reduce a client’s behavioral biases.” The professional financial adviser will help the client overcome the anxiety that comes from market volatility.
  3. Working with a financial planner helps the worker become aware of the consequences of low savings and help overcome the biases that many people have against participation in the financial markets.
    • Financial literacy surveys show that most American workers don’t have the investment knowledge to make effective retirement savings decisions. The simple process of process of calculating retirement income makes people realize that they have not been saving enough for retirement. A major value of working with a financial planner is to be shown the difference between current and optimal retirement saving.

To understand the value of a financial planner it is important to distinguish between types of financial advisors. Many who hold themselves out as advisors are stockbrokers or investment managers. The ones who have the biggest impact on retirement savings behavior take a holistic approach, making the plan and the goal the center of the relationship. They take the time to explain the complex choices involved in creating the appropriate portfolios.  They are typically RIAs.

Here’s the bottom line:

Results indicate consistent evidence that a retirement planning strategy and the use of a financial planner can have a sizable impact on retirement savings. Those who had calculated retirement needs and used a financial planner (which likely captures those who used a comprehensive planner who follows a more thorough planning process that includes retirement needs assessment) generated more than 50 percent greater savings than those who estimated retirement needs on their own without the help of a planner.

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