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Merrill Says Savers Should Move Past Bucket Lists

By Murray Coleman May 19, 2016

Compared to workers in most other industrialized nations, Americans are “vacation deprived.” In fact, U.S. retirees are so addicted to a “workaholic” mentality that it can make their transition to a life of leisure a real challenge for their advisors.

That’s one take from a new Merrill Lynch report, “Beyond the Bucket List.”

Against a backdrop of nearly 10,000 baby boomers a day entering retirement, the study warns that advisors will need to do more in coming years than simply rely on what some now see as the clichéd practice of helping clients devise and fund “bucket lists” of things to check off in their golden years.

“People are living longer these days, so the definition of retirement – and what traditional bucket lists really should hold – is evolving,” says Howard Joe, whose Atlanta-based Merrill team manages about $250 million.

The 30-year Merrill veteran, who has been briefed on the new study, believes “identifying what clients really want to do in retirement is just a starting point” for rendering sound and effective financial advice.

Recently Joe met with a still-grieving widow who thought a week-long cruise in the Caribbean would fill her wish list.

“But I pointed out to her that there were 51 more weeks in the year,” he says.

So he talked to the woman – who had inherited $10 million – about her children and grandchildren. This led into an extended discussion about passing her wealth to the next generation.

But just as important, Joe learned his client was very interested in the history of different cultures.

So he introduced her to a high-end travel agent – a member of the advisor’s professional network who had impressed him with his knowledge of different cultures.

As a result, the woman has booked five trips with five different grandchildren, built around shared interests. She has plans to go to southern Europe, the Baltic Sea and the Amazon jungle, among other destinations.

“During this time of grief, she was having trouble seeing what a full life she could lead,” says Joe.

The conversation must change once a couple moves from accumulating wealth to living off their nest egg, says David Nethery, a Dallas-based Merrill advisor who manages about $500 million.

“People tend to focus at least initially on travel,” he says.

After initiating financial discussions about retirement and travel ideas, he likes to follow up with home visits.

David Nethery

Nethery starts by asking for a home tour, which he finds can lead to all sorts of new discoveries about personal goals that might’ve been left off their original bucket lists.

For example, he knew that a former c-suite executive he’d served for more than a decade had a passion for creating art. But a recent visit to his home made him realize how important his hobby had become to him.

“He’s a very good artist and he was surprised by my positive reaction,” says Nethery. “Besides close family members, he’d never really shown anyone his own work.”

Such encouragement led the man to study art formally. He has also started to weave his art interests into his travel plans. And with some nudging from his family, the client is now considering showing his work in public.

“His pursuit of a new passion is a great source of satisfaction for me personally, since it shows he values my opinion on things other than strictly financial matters – my relationship with him has moved beyond professional to include his family’s personal interests as well,” says Nethery.

Boston-based advisor Raj Sharma, whose Merrill team manages $10 billion, likes to consider more than just a family’s aspirations.

As important, he says, is to uncover their fears about possible retirement roadblocks.

In a process that starts about five years before they leave the daily workforce, the FA creates mission statements centered on what his clients want to achieve in retirement.

Sharma uses this compendium of lifestyle aspirations and financial goals as a basis for an ongoing reassessment of where retirees stand in meeting their dreams. It also helps his staff keep ahead of possible roadblocks.

“Bucket lists by themselves are somewhat empty pursuits – you can only play so many rounds of golf and spend so much time traveling,” says Sharma. “As an advisor, I find that making sure my clients are living in retirement with real purpose is the key to helping them to achieve their dreams.”