The market crash of 2008 prompted many individuals to learn more about and take better control of their retirement assets. Because of this trend, many companies offer online tools to help plan participants plug in numbers and see just how well they have planned for retirement.
Retirement calculators are blossoming all over the Web, and even though they all seem to use different criteria to figure out just where you stand, they all serve one purpose, to spur participants to some sort of action, said David Bernard, executive vice president of strategic relationships at GuidedChoice.
GuidedChoice recently rolled out an online savings tool called QuickAdvice. The tool is a “way to get in and get information really quickly. You don’t have to enter a lot of data and it can give you a quick snapshot,” Bernard said.
“The entire industry has an uphill battle against inertia. Whether people admit they have a need, life is busy for all of us and it falls down on the priority list,” he said. “We don’t need a lot of data or a lot of time to start the awareness process. It triggers that reaction: I know I need to do more, learn more about my situation.”
Transamerica Retirement Services recently launched a service called RetireTrack. It allows individuals to plug in information about what they are saving and get a better picture of whether or not they are putting enough aside for retirement.
“The important thing is you get an idea of whether it is going to work or not,” said Dave Shute, vice president of marketing for Transamerica.
RetireTrack allows participants to include spousal income and to set the year when they want to retire. Knowing where you currently stand can help individuals “reset their expectations or address the problem,” he said. “Maybe I need to redo my allocation, save more, defer more, look at how much of my assets are allocated, look at it more aggressively.”
Shute added that, “People need to understand what they are doing to want to do it. I think there was a time in the past where people took things for granted. What you told me to do was the right thing to do. But now, you need to prove it a bit. The more you know, the more you want to know.”
Education can only take people so far, Bernard said. “We can educate you to the highest level, but you still need to act on it in some way, shape or form. Our specialty is investment management and providing investment advice. This issue boils down to increased savings. If you don’t have a whole lot of money to invest and you are not saving a lot of money, the best investment advice is not going to take you that far. You can’t turn $100 into $100 million overnight.”
He added that different companies manage success differently. Mutual fund managers gauge their success by the assets they are able to attract and the returns they are providing. “In our world it is a little different. The funds we have are predetermined by the plan sponsors and it is hard to compare one person’s results with another person’s results at another company. The real measure of success has to deal with, were we able to spur action? Did we get them to focus on the topic, get them to increase their saving rate?” he said.
The true measure of success is if plan participants begin investing in a more efficient and effective manner.
“The best thing we can do at GuidedChoice is to get people up and moving, is to give them a piece of information that makes them think. The best marketing brochure doesn’t do a whole lot,” Bernard said. “We all know we should save more….The best way is to give people [a reason] to move, give them real information. Not a brochure or a sales pitch. Here’s where you are today and here’s what we think that will turn into when you retire.”
Online retirement tools are “about flexibility,” said Shute. “We learn differently, figure things out differently. We all have a different approach how to understand things. These tools let you do it at your own pace and at the level of sophistication that is appropriate for you.”
There is a lot of competition out there and many ways to address retirement plan participant education. Transamerica launched a smart phone application last year. “Those kinds of things are going to be more important,” he said. “One of the things we work hard to do is connect the dots between financial literacy and the ability to use that and make something happen.”
He added that it is hard to go out in the marketplace and see all the different tools out there and try to make sense of them.
“As much as you want flexibility, the moment it gets too complicated, people are going to go in a different direction,” Shute said.
He likened the retirement industry to shopping for a car or buying food at a fast food restaurant. People have been programmed to look for simple options: to order package A, B or C for a car or to order food combos by number. The retirement industry has to take that into consideration and make the information it shares as flexible and easy-to-understand as possible, otherwise people check out and stop listening.