What’s your retirement number?

Back in 2008, ING ran a “Your Number” marketing campaign with print, web, and TV ads showing different people busy with their daily routines carrying a large orange six- or seven-figure number in dollars.

The number supposedly represented how much they needed to save for retirement.

ING’s ads were a perfect example of how we’ve been conditioned to save, save, save, so that at some point, likely in our 60s, we can “retire” and live off our money pot until we die.

Saving for retirement is obviously important, but are we saving for the future at the expense of living today?

The Right Hemisphere

No doubt you’re familiar with the pop psychology version of left brain/right brain thinking. But when you go beyond the superficial analysis of the two hemispheres and look at the actual scholarship in this area, you find something quite interesting.

Iain McGilchrist, in his book, The Master and His Emissary, describes left hemisphere and right hemisphere functioning in part as follows:

  • The left sees parts, the right sees the whole.
  • The left explains, the right understands.
  • The left seeks certainty, the right revels in ambiguity.
  • The left wants a map, the right prefers seeing the territory.

Writing in Prospect Magazine about McGilchrist, Nick Spencer said, “The left hemisphere is better at ‘how’ and ‘what,’ while the right is better at ‘why’—though McGilchrist points out that both are capable of addressing either set of inquiries depending on context.”

As I think about the nature of retirement planning, it is highly left-hemisphere focused. It’s all about finding “your number,” developing detailed spreadsheets, determining assumptions for growth rates, tax rates, withdrawal rates, inflation rates, modeling spending patterns during go-go, slow-go, and no-go years, running Monte Carlo simulations until you reach an acceptable probability of success, and adding in some “cushion” just in case.

But let’s face reality. Your life cannot be spreadsheeted.

What’s missing from retirement planning, and financial planning in general, is the value, nuance, and context that right-hemisphere thinking brings to the table.

The Big Picture

The retirement planning pendulum has swung too far to the left hemisphere. Advisors and clients who want to thrive going forward will zoom out and help the right hemisphere take more of a starring role in the retirement conversation.

How do you do that?

The overriding key is to rely less on the false security of “finding your number” and add more emphasis on seeing the big picture.

It’s less about a number, and more about a realization, as advisor Jeremy Walter tweeted.

In my conversation with Lynne Twist, she described a feeling of sufficiency that could soften the intensity of reaching your number:

“Sufficiency is not halfway between more than you need and not enough. Sufficiency is not an amount, it’s a way of being in the world. It’s knowing that we are being met by the universe with exactly what we need.”

She went on to say, “If you let go of trying to get more of what you don’t really need, it frees up oceans of energy tied up in that chase to turn and pay attention to what you already have. And when you pay attention to what you have, when you nourish what you have, when you make a difference with what you have, when you share what you have, it expands.”

Financial advisor Gayle Colman, in her book, The Body of Money, framed it this way:

“Go with me. Imagine that you arrived at your number. Pick a number in your head. It sits in the bank. Now, what happens?
Do you stop?
Do you continue?
What changes?
What remains the same?
Does life continue to move?
Then what?
And, oh, by the way, does the number mysteriously begin to move too?
What happens when you are striving for your number?
Do you work harder?
Does spending your life energy to meet a number bring you closer to joy, peace, well-being?
Do you give up—it’s too far away from possibility?
Is the number a motivation or a depressing pill?
You see the myth of a right number can bring misery. Let go of your right number. Open wider to what works for you, unique, precious you.”

Intrigued by her book, I recorded a podcast with Gayle and what I took away from our conversation was the idea that we won’t find comfort, confidence, or security from something “out there.”

Comfort and confidence is an inner game. It’s a knowing, a realization that I’ll be ok, that I’ll find a way regardless of what crosses my path.

Where’s Your Attention?

Part of this “knowing” could come from the type of attention we employ when thinking about our money.

McGilchrist wrote, “The most fundamental difference between the hemispheres lies in the type of attention they give to the world.”

The left hemisphere focuses attention narrowly and with precision. In our case, the left hemisphere wants to zero in on “our number” like a bee to honey.

By contrast, the right hemisphere widens the aperture and takes in an expansive view. It doesn’t see “our number” as a fixed point, rather, it sees money as a flow.

Underpinning these two types of attention is the context they inhabit. The left hemisphere is concerned about me as an individual, my needs, or as the Beatles sang, “I Me, Me, Mine.”

The right hemisphere doesn’t see the individual person, rather, it sees the whole of humanity. It sees people and situations in relation to a greater whole. It sees the forest for the trees.

What does all this have to do with retirement planning?

By sprinkling more right-hemisphere thinking into our client conversations, we can reduce the stress of getting to “our number,” feel more relaxed in spending our savings, and have an overall healthier relationship to this thing we call money.

And how great would it be if more people decided to “trade some of your 70s for some of your 20s and 30s,” as tweeted by Baird market strategist Michael Antonelli.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that what I’ve written here does not come easy to me. I’m “a numbers guy” who has undergrad and grad degrees in finance and business, who’s been a Certified Financial Planner for more than 25 years, and who can tell you his net worth by month going back more than 30 years.

But one thing I can’t tell you is “my number.”

I have never calculated if I have enough money to retire. Perhaps my CFP designation should be revoked!

It’s taken me many years of research, writing, thinking, body work, experiences, missed opportunities, regrets, and exposure to people like Lynne Twist, Gayle Colman, Iain McGilchrist, and many others to realize that I’ll be ok regardless of what my brokerage account says.

Now What?

Traditional retirement planning with its emphasis on “your number” isn’t going away anytime soon. Too many people have too much money invested in sustaining this model for it to change quickly.

What I encourage you to do is brush up on your knowledge of brain science, particularly left/right hemisphere research, and find ways to incrementally add a dollop of right hemisphere thinking into your retirement planning conversations.

Here are some resources I’ve found helpful.

So many of us stress out about our retirement savings. But if we could zoom out and absorb the wisdom available to us, we might help our clients live more enjoyable and less stressful lives in the years leading up to and during retirement.