If this year has taught us anything, it is that we need to hope for the best, but plan for the worst. In financial planning, clients are advised to reassess their financial goals when faced with important life events and/or changes, such as getting married, having a child or with the loss of a loved one. This year, a significant event happened with the outbreak of COVID-19, impacting investors globally. As we approach the end of 2020 and the start of a new year, why not take the time to assess your current financial goals, whether these goals are still relevant, set new goals if needed and make sure you are set-up for success going into 2021.
As clients continue to deal with the stressors and worries caused by the pandemic, they may be having trouble making sound financial decisions. Research has shown that we all suffer from behavioural biases, and we can be even more prone to behavioural mistakes during times of uncertainty.
Uncovering your real goals
It is likely that 2020 has impacted investors livelihoods and financial circumstances, and thereby also their financial goals.
What are your top financial goals? As investors, we all face this question at some point, and we generally have an answer. But have you ever looked at how stable or consistent your answers are, when you think about them in different contexts or at different times? It may surprise you, but researchers have found that we tend to answer with whatever is top of mind, which may not always be our true, long-term goals.
For example, let’s say a friend recently read an article about vacation trips in Italy. When you ask about long-term goals, the response might be: “I’d like to travel more,” even though the person also cares deeply about leaving a legacy of charitable works. It’s not that the person is insincere or that other goals aren’t deeply held – it’s just that is what’s top of mind and easy to recall.
Tailoring your financial plan around your personal goals can both increase your total returns and motivate you to stay on track1. The success of this technique however depends entirely on having the right goals in place – which research suggests we, as investors, struggle to identify.
To prompt more-thoughtful goal identification, past research suggests that a carefully curated list —a master list — of common objectives can be effective. Master lists have been shown to improve preference identification across a variety of areas. Our research tested the effectiveness of lists for identifying financial goals. We wanted the answer to the question: How can we help investors identify their true financial goals, and not only those that are top of mind?
We found that many people seemed to prioritise goals that were more personalised, detailed, and emotionally grounded after viewing the master list, and the use of a master list also seemed to nudge investors toward more-specific goals.
We found that about half of the people who changed their top goal focused on emotions instead of the outcome. Using a master list drew an important parallel between emotional returns and financial returns. Many people who changed their goals settled on outcomes that revolved around emotional security, such as “to feel secure about my finances now” and “to not be a financial burden to my family as I grow older”. While emotions are often seen as anathema to sound financial decisions, our results suggest that there’s a big emotional component to holistically defining financial goals.
If your goals changed, you’re not alone. At Morningstar, we created a worksheet to guide clients through the process of setting financial goals. Advisors can use this printable exercise to nudge clients toward deeper consideration of what goals are most important to them. This can prompt a meaningful discussion around goal setting and help people avoid top-of-mind, but superficial, goals. We also recommend that you read our research report “Mining for goals” to find out more about the research behind the worksheet.
Behavioural biases, that often creep in during the goal-setting process, surface when we are facing uncertainty — and when it comes to investment decisions, these biases can hurt more than they help. Investors may benefit from having a resource of their own from which to learn the impact of behavioural mistakes on their finances and how to avoid them. We created a checklist you can send to your clients to help them start to incorporate behavioural techniques into their financial decisions.
This checklist is written for investors, so you can offer clients a resource they can peruse on their own time as well as in your virtual check-ins. This way, you can both work together to help clients thoughtfully navigate their financial decisions and empower them to use behavioural techniques on their own when they may need them the most.
Investors are facing quite a few obstacles when it comes to making thoughtful financial decisions. We can’t erase the emotions and biases that come with these unprecedented times, but effective planning and practicing some behavioural techniques can help investors prevent these factors from getting in the way of their long-term financial goals.
This is where advisors can turn to lessons from behavioural science to help keep investors on track. We’ve created a guide and checklist for advisors to explore how to use these behavioural techniques in their practice.
Understanding your financial goals is central to financial planning but identifying goals that truly matter can be tough. Now, more than ever, we must take the time to avoid behavioural biases, establish strong financial goals, and implement behaviours to help meet these goals.
1 – Blanchett 2015; Locke et al. 1990).