LAS VEGAS -- Ever heard of the marshmallow test? Would your four-year-old self have flunked it? (More about this later.) What do marshmallows have to do with online financial education or retirement calculator tools?
Just that those of us who need such tools the most are perhaps the least likely to try them.
Which is why, more out of curiosity than out of hope, I clicked the Get Started button on the interactive tool “Curious behaviors that can ruin your retirement,” from the Boston College Center for Financial Literacy.
To start off, Jerry asks such questions as “How long do you think you’ll live in retirement?” and “How old will you be when your mortgage is paid off?” You click on your answer and he reacts. A thermometer-like indicator on the screen assesses your answers in terms of retirement readiness and general stupidity. Just kidding about the latter.
During a self-proclaimed break, which really isn’t one, he offers a virtual snack: Chocolate cake or fruit salad. “Retirement planning,” he says, “is choosing the fruit salad – it’s less tasty but far more nutritious.” He advises to take retirement planning one step at a time, to avoid overloading the brain’s circuits. That’s a nice way to say that some of us might take longer to get the concepts. (I’m looking at you, fellow English majors.)
Along the way, Jerry offers a $2 cup of coffee now or $4 in a year, sort of an adult variation on the marshmallow experiment. It’s been written about a lot, but it basically predicts whether a child can delay gratification. Children who can’t, who want a marshmallow NOW, BABY, turn into adults who apparently want everything instantly and find it painful to reject smaller, short-term rewards in favor of larger, long-term ones.
If you select the coffee (noooo!), you’ll be wrong. Ding. The $4, Jerry says, is a better deal. But personally, I don’t believe him. What good is $4 going to do me in a year? It seems such a small amount. Am I too literal? Would I have flunked the marshmallow test?
Back at the tool, Jerry says that when planning for retirement, think in terms of what dollars will buy, not how many dollars you have. He uses the example of a $10 pizza costing 3% more in a year – not much of a rise, but add 3% every year for 10 years and you’re going to end up with half a pizza for $10.
To be clear, the Jerry parts are meant to be light -- they're the appetizer. The resources at the end of each “chapter” or encounter with Jerry are where the meat of the tool is, explaining concepts in depth.
The theme of the tool is that the way we are wired is not conducive to planning for a future of 20 to 30 years of retirement. Savvy, because the emphasis on “wiring” defuses any feelings of defensiveness or, for people like me, any banging of the head against the wall at the number of years wasted in ignorance. Plus the tool’s use of the adjective “curious” in front of “behaviors,” rather than “bad” or “foolish,” helps foster a Taoist-like “let’s examine this oddity without judgement” attitude.
Some employees might find the tool useful, if their employer properly “motivated” them to spend an hour with it. Between not doing anything or interacting with the tool, the tool can’t hurt and might even get some employees thinking harder about planning for retirement. And they might even ace the marshmallow test now.