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Changing investors’ behaviour is challenging, particularly as many still regard personal finance as a topic that’s off limits, new Merrill Lynch study finds

By James Langton |

U.S. retail investors are decidedly uncertain about their personal finances. Most notably, the vast majority still don't know how much money they will need for retirement and it's not a subject that many are comfortable talking about, according to the results of new research from Bank of America Merrill Lynch published on Wednesday.

The survey of 4,800 U.S. investors, which was carried out by research firm Age Wave, finds that 81% don't know how much money they will need to fund retirement. Only 27% of workers 50 years of age or older say they're prepared to fund a retirement that lasts 10 years, never mind a retirement that could last 20 or 30 years. The survey also finds that most investors are not saving nearly as much as they think they should.

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Changing these behaviours is challenging, Merrill Lynch suggests, particularly as many investors still regard personal finance as a topic that is off limits and half of survey participants say that they don't have any positive financial role models. Moreover, the research indicates that investors are not confident in their financial decision-making, admitting that they second-guess their financial decisions more than any other major life decision.

One way advisors can help clients focus on these issues, Merrill Lynch suggests, is by framing retirement saving as the biggest expense that investors will face in their lifetimes — larger than buying a house or paying for post-secondary education for their children.

In addition, the firm recommends advisors facilitate conversations about personal finances and related issues about health, lifestyle and giving that are largely off limits with most investors.

"To better experience the great ‘upsides of aging' and the new freedoms retirement can offer, people could take steps to better understand their finances, more openly discuss finance topics and seek out positive role models — and that process can start now, no matter what age you are," says Kevin Crain, head of workplace financial solutions at Merrill Lynch, in a statement.

In particular, the survey indicates that millennials are more unsure of their retirement prospects with more than half saying that a secure retirement is beyond their reach compared with 30% of baby boomers. The survey also finds that millennials expect to fund more of their own retirements than previous generations.

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"As Americans gear up for longer retirement experiences, the responsibility for funding these later years is landing much more on their shoulders," says Lorna Sabbia, head of retirement and personal wealth solutions with Merrill Lynch, in a statement. "To navigate this new landscape, today's retirees and future generations will need to play a more active role, which includes closing the savings ‘intention-action' gap, planning ahead to meet their retirement goals and regularly course-correcting along the way."

The firm suggests that the "course corrections" retirees could embrace include working longer, curbing post-retirement spending, downsizing and participating in the emerging "sharing" economy.

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"This study underscores that thriving in retirement requires looking through the interconnected lenses of all major life priorities — family, health, home, work, leisure, giving and finances — and anticipating how you want to live, what matters most to you, and the trade-offs you can make today to more generously fund your future self," says Ken Dychtwald, founder and CEO of Age Wave. "Although we are all challenged to fund our longer lives, this suite of studies has repeatedly revealed that Americans remain quite hopeful and are willing to consider a wide range of course corrections in order to enjoy a secure retirement."

The firm also reports that the primary triggers to saving for retirement include an employer offering a retirement savings plan (46%) or providing information about retirement benefits (26%).

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