If there’s a first step to getting your clients ready for retirement, it may be simply getting them to identify what exactly retirement means to them, according to a panel of CPA financial planning experts.

“One of the first conversations we have with people who are 10 years out from retirement is, ‘What does retirement look like?’” explained Blue Ocean Capital CEO Ted Sarenski, at a panel on retirement at the American Institute of CPAs’ Engage event, held this week in Las Vegas. “They usually haven’t thought about it, other than that they don’t want to work anymore.”

“‘How will you spend your time in retirement?’ is probably the first question to ask, because that will determine what the client’s number needs to be,” explained moderator Lyle Benson, the president of L.K. Benson & Co.

The “number” – how much money clients will need for the retirement they envision – is naturally an important consideration for financial planners, but figuring it out isn’t the only reason why it’s important for clients to have a clear vision for their retirement.

Family harmony is one important factor. “The spouses of some would-be retirees say, ‘I don’t care if you still work, but you’re getting out of the house at 9 a.m. and you’re not coming back until 5,’” explained Sarenski. He added that there’s also the issue of how retirees will find meaning in their lives without some plan: “Many workaholics often get their sense of worth from their job, and they need to find new sources of worth.”

“I had a client who tried to retire four times, because it took him that many tries to figure out what he was going to do with himself,” recalled Scott Sprinkle, managing member of Sprinkle & Associates. “Helping clients figure out, ‘What is retirement?’ is one of the most valuable things we can offer.”

Once clients have determined what their retirement should look like, advisors can begin working toward “the number.”

“We start by quantifying their needs,” explained Thomas Trainor, managing director of Hanover Private Client Corp. “Ninety to 95 percent of my clients don’t have a clue about how much they’re spending. The first thing to do is to sit down and figure that out.”

Added Sarenski, “Entrepreneurial clients often don’t realize how much their businesses are paying for – cars, travel, health care – as much as $12,000 to $15,000 on health insurance alone. That can be surprising for these folks.

It’s important to do all this as early as possible, Trainor warned: “It can be a huge reality check at 10 years out to look at your lifestyle and realize you’re going to run out of money at 78. At 10 years out, it’s easier to make some course corrections.”

Those course corrections may often involve spending less – which can put their advisor in a difficult position.

The retirement panel at Engage 2018 (from left): Ted Sarenski, Thomas Trainor, Scott Sprinkle and Lyle Benson.
The retirement panel at Engage 2018 (from left): Ted Sarenski, Thomas Trainor, Scott Sprinkle and Lyle Benson.

“The kind of client who spends too much frightens me,” said Benson. “They often won’t change.”

Sprinkle suggested a blunt approach: “You have to give them the choice: ‘If you like mac & cheese and want to eat only that after you turn 83, then you can continue spending like this.”

If they refuse to adjust, the advisor may need to take more serious action. “You can’t save everyone,” said Sarenski. “You may need to say, ‘I’ve explained this to you, and if you’re not willing to change …’ If you don’t fire them, you’re the one who’s going to be in trouble. You know that train wreck’s coming – you need to fire them. ‘I can’t help you anymore; I think we’ve done everything we can for you.’ Rarely can you expect them to change.”

Rather than retrench, some clients make seek to take on more risk in their portfolio, potentially blowing up a carefully laid-out retirement plan.

“For clients who want to get more aggressive, we try to talk to them earlier about the risks involved,” said Trainor. “We also talk about what are they going to do at 80 and they’re running out of cash and need to live with their kids. Clients will sometimes say that they just don’t believe the numbers, and at that point you need to think about maybe ending that client relationship. There’s no way to generate a 15 to 20 percent return without risk.”

“You need to be able to take a strong position when clients want to blow up a plan,” he continued. “I’ve never seen a client step back in terms of lifestyle, until they hit the brick wall and run out of cash.”

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Daniel Hood

Daniel Hood

Daniel Hood is editor-in-chief of Accounting Today and Tax Pro Today, and has covered the tax and accounting field for over 20 years.