You don’t need to become an expert on retirement. You deal with doctors, lawyers, all kinds of experts, and you still cope. What you need is enough information to work with them, to know how to help them to help you. They provide the expertise. All you ought to be is an informed consumer of their expertise.
That means two things.
First, you need a framework. When you see pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, you wonder how they fit together? It helps a lot if you have the cover of the box that the puzzle comes in, with a picture to show you what the whole thing looks like when it’s complete. If you have that picture, it becomes easier to see where any one piece of the puzzle fits. Here’s how I suggest you should feel:
“Now I know how to think about the issues connected with this phase of life. I now have more knowledge and it has helped to shape my opinions and attitudes. I know what questions to ask, and so I’m more likely to get useful answers. It’s not really as complicated as it’s made out to be. And because of all of that, I’m in control. I’m setting my own path to a happy, comfortable time of life.”
Second, what does it mean, exactly, to be an informed consumer of expertise? It means you can do three things, when an expert tells you something, or gives you advice or makes a recommendation.
The three things you can do
1. Assess the expertise. If you don’t understand the advice of the expert, say so, and make sure it is explained to you in a way that you understand.
2. Challenge the expert. Get the expert to identify the principles behind the recommendation. Make sure you are told about any research that underlies the recommendations. Where does the research come from? Is the evidence based on what has happened in the past? What assumptions is the expert making about the future? What could go wrong? How would the recommendations work out if the future doesn’t evolve in the way the expert has assumed? You need to be able to make that sort of a challenge, and get straightforward answers to assess whether you’re comfortable with the risks.
3. See how the advice applies to your own situation. That’s the area in which you are the expert. You know your own situation better than the expert does. To make the expert’s advice as good as it can be, you need to be able to convey the elements that define your situation to the expert. That way, the recommendation can be tailored to fit you, rather than just being off the peg. Not that ‘off the peg’ is necessarily bad. But the more the expert knows about you, the better the fit is likely to be.
The expert on any other subject is, in fact, an informed consumer of your own expertise about your particulars. So, explain your situation, and the expert can make the advice fit you as well as possible.
Paint a picture of success … and failure
Let me suggest two things you can do in this regard.
One is to paint a picture of success. Imagine yourself (your partner, your family, whoever) five years down the road. What would make you feel that the outcome has been good? What would make you feel disappointed? Convey to the expert what that picture looks like.
As human beings, we’re notorious for hoping for more than is reasonable. Typically, our financial ambitions far exceed our willingness to pay for them, or the amount of risk we’re willing to take. That alone is worth discussing with the expert: to see how feasible your definition of success is.
Of course, the second you should do is to paint a picture of failure. What sort of outcome, five years down the road, would make you feel disappointed? If you can let the expert get inside your head, it might be possible to detect early signs, in the future, that events are working out well or not. It might be possible to design a Plan B that isn’t too difficult or expensive to move to. The earlier the detection, the more ‘Plan B’ possibilities.
All of this should make you realise how much better you know yourself than the expert knows you. I hope this realisation will give you the courage to challenge the expert’s advice – something you might otherwise be afraid to do, because after all, they’re the expert, right, and what do you know? You know yourself, that’s the answer. You deserve to fully understand recommendations before they are implemented. And so, raise issues with any expert whose advice doesn’t make you comfortable.
Don Ezra has an extensive background in investing and consulting, and is also a widely-published author. His current writing project, blog posts at www.donezra.com, is focused on helping people prepare for a happy, financially secure life after they finish full-time work.