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Playacting Can Help Make a Point

April 7, 2017

This time we hear from Holly Kylen, a Lititz, Pa.-based retirement coach with Voya Financial Advisors. She describes a technique for helping clients better appreciate the implications of possible life events on their retirement planning.

I used to have trouble getting clients to talk about how issues like death and disability might affect their retirements and financial futures. It always surprised me how some people would just clam up and refuse to discuss the possibility that something might not go as planned.

This was especially true of spouses. I noticed that if I tried to bring up the possibility of an untimely death, they would say, “No, we don’t want to talk about that.” If I raised the possibility one of them could become physically disabled, they would say, “We’re not here to buy insurance.”

I knew I needed to find a new approach. Planning for worst-case scenarios is crucial but clearly the way I had been going about it wasn’t connecting. So at my next meeting I decided to try something different. I told the next couple that met with me that we were going to play a game called “What If Things Don’t Go Right.”

There are only three things you can’t control that could jeopardize your retirement, I told them: death, disability, and living too long. I got up and wrote those words on the whiteboard in my office. I also drew a triangle. On the bottom of the triangle I wrote the word “protection,” on one side I wrote “accumulation,” and on the other “retirement.”

I immediately noticed a different feeling in the room. The unwanted life experiences were staring right at them, and they were connected to something they cared about — their retirement plan.

Then we started to simulate life experiences. For example, I told the husband that for this part of the game he was dead. He couldn’t talk. I handed him a pen and pad so he could write whatever he wanted to discuss later, but under no circumstances could he butt in.

Then I asked his wife how much it would cost to pay for a funeral, and how she would pay for it. I asked her how much money she would need to stay in their home, how much she would need to live a certain lifestyle, how long she expected to live, and a series of other questions. Then we talked about a possible disability. We also changed roles.

Holly Kylen

I found that this exercise really got this couple to drop their guards. And when I’ve tried it with other couples since then, I’ve discovered people who are not inclined to have this conversation suddenly open up about their concerns and are willing to address them. Because I frame it as a game, clients are more likely to entertain unpleasant possibilities — and therefore make important decisions.

I’ve had such success with these simulation exercises that I’ve begun to try them in other scenarios. For instance, I like to challenge people who are near retirement to live on their retirement income before they actually quit working. Let’s say a client is living on X amount of income but their retirement income will be X minus Y, and they think they can easily manage on that reduced budget, I suggest they start to live that way immediately. I have them keep a detailed budget and note every time they overspend. I ask them do this for a whole year. By the end of that year, we have a pretty good idea about whether they can live on their proposed retirement budget, or whether we need to make some changes.

Again, framing it as a game or an experiment allows people the little bit of distance they need in order to face difficult decisions or explore unpleasant realities. In that way, they can be a powerful tool for clients who keep putting off tough conversations.