For Retirement - or Any Savings Goal - Be Lazy, Self-Centered

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By Hal Bundrick

Saving success is not a numbers game, though we're often told it is. Investing for retirement? Save 10 percent to 15 percent beginning in your 20s. College fund? Count on tuition rising by a factor of three over 17 years and open a 529 plan.

but most people aren't motivated by numbers, and yet we're still bombarded with pie charts and percentages when we're pitched a savings plan. What makes us really want to save? Self-actualization, says Jae Min Lee, a visiting scholar at the Ohio State University. Lee's research finds that saving is most motivated by our search for personal fulfillment.

Consider Your Values

It all can be traced back to Abraham Maslow's groundbreaking study of behavior as represented in a hierarchy of human needs. The most basic physical and emotional needs at the base of the human motivation pyramid, with aesthetic and spiritual goals at the top.

"The willingness to save for individual desire can be a more important motivation than from a sense of duty (such as future uncertainty) or supporting one's family," Lee's study says. "Our findings showing a positive relationship between more personalized saving goals and saving likelihood can be used to improve household saving behaviors."

Those personalized saving goals should include specifying how much to save for a certain goal, Lee says, such as "I need to save $1,000 for a Caribbean beach vacation," rather than an unspecified amount such as, "I need to save as much as I can."

"People need try to focus on something personal," Lee says. "What will you do? What kind of goal do you really have? What do you really want to achieve in your lifetime? I think that the psychological factors could be related to their real savings decisions. The choice of savings goals reflects our psychological needs and the different values of our own life."

Focus more on the purpose of your life and your values, Lee advises. "Self-actualization really matters," she adds. "Encouraging households to have more personalized saving goals is another way for financial planners and educators to implement our findings."

Mind Over Money

And how are financial advisers helping clients make their goals tangible, specific, realistic and obtainable? Observes Fredrick Petrie, a former Canadian Air Force airman and now financial navigator in Winnipeg, Manitoba: "Savings is 20 percent numbers and 80 percent psychology."

Petrie believes most people start by budgeting everything else and seeing what they have left over for saving and investing. "My twist is that I suggest 'taxing yourself.' Make yourself your own mini-IRS. You are more likely to put it aside if you are forced to as a tax. Put 10 cents of every dollar that comes into your hands somewhere where you are less likely to spend it. Successful saving first requires 'psyching yourself out.'"

Realistic and Accountable

Sometimes it's not a matter of simply having a goal -- it's more about having a realistic goal. "I had clients once who wanted to purchase a $750,000 house," says Margie Shard, a certified financial planner in Fenton, Michigan. "To do that, they would have to eliminate all their luxury expenses -- vacations, gifts, spa expenses such as hair, nails, facials and massages, entertainment costs like eating out and going to the movies. After reviewing this, they decided that a $300,000 house was a much better option because they could still have those luxuries in their life. While we still had to make some adjustments for them to buy the $300,000 house, the changes were minimal."

Conquering savings inertia can also mean enlisting the help of a friend, someone who will hold you accountable.

"I am not saying you have to hire a financial professional, but simply that you need to have someone that can help you stay on track with your goals," says Steve Repak, a financial advisor in Charlotte, North Carolina. Tapping into his military training, he says it takes more than a "one man army." "Pick a friend or a family member with a positive attitude who will provide you with encouragement and, when needed, some tough love if you get off track."

Repak also suggests keeping a written journal of your progress and sharing it with your partner. "Knowing that you have to show someone where you are wasting your money might make the difference in having more money instead of no money," he says.

It's All in the Cards

One way Jeffrey Bogart helps his clients prioritize savings goals is to play cards with them. The Mayfield Heights, Ohio investment advisor uses a special deck. Each card face has a goal on it: Buy a car, save for college, buy a home, save for retirement and so on.

"I have the clients put the cards in three piles. The first is 'can live without'; the second is 'would like to have'; and the third is 'can't live without.' It's fun to watch couples decide which card/goals are the most important to them. If there is a conflict, the woman usually wins!"

Laziness Works

But 25-year-old Rachel Blank of Washington, D.C., works to "save money in her sleep" by transferring $100 from her checking account to an emergency savings account automatically every month. To spend less, she skips Starbucks most mornings, opting for a home brew instead - and packs her lunch. She's not a frugal fanatic, though. She chooses her money battles carefully.

"I love drinking my coffee at home early in the morning, and I normally work through lunch, so packing my lunch works for me," Blank says. "But I love to work out, so I do belong to a nice gym and happily pay the higher-than-average monthly membership cost. Giving up the lunch and coffee that I don't care as much about allows me to spend more on the things I actually enjoy."

Having just passed her Series 65 securities exam, the aspiring investment advisor and blogger at believes "out of sight, out of mind" can be a very powerful savings tool. "I personally only keep enough money in my checking account to safely cover all of my bills. Everything else goes into a high-yield savings account at a different bank, an investment account or a retirement account."

Blank says spending the money in these other accounts would require a "headache of transfers," selling stocks and, in the case of her retirement account, paying taxes and a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty. "Believe it or not, laziness can be your friend when it comes to saving money."

Hal M. Bundrick is a certified financial planner and former financial advisor and senior investment specialist for Wall Street firms.
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