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Attention Getters

401(k) Education

I was recently taken to task for last week’s column about retirement savings regrets.

More precisely, my column about the regrets expressed in a recent American Century survey drew the attention of Faith Teope in a LinkedIn post titled, “Dear Finance Experts: We Would Listen, But We Don't Care.” In fairness, it wasn’t so much my column (“boring but true”), or even the American Century survey’s findings that came in for criticism, but more the head-scratching that the survey set off among financial professionals (including, I suppose this one) as to why people aren’t paying more attention to things like… saving for retirement. Her premise—that we’re using language that doesn’t resonate with those we hope to motivate—is, frankly, unassailable. 

In fact, it’s a topic I broached (at least at a high level) earlier this year in a post titled, “Is it Time to Retire Retirement?” As I noted then, for all but the most financially astute, trading off a here-and-now need (or want) for some obscure future notion like “retirement” is a hard sell. And, let’s face it, the further you are from that future event, the harder it is to “sell.” 

But arguably the problem runs deeper than the label(s) we affix to the concept of the ultimate goal. Let’s face it, financial freedom is a laudable, evergreen objective—but for most of us it’s not a short-term goal—and without a “how” to go with the “what,” it might not matter. 

In her post, Faith states that our current messaging is “…not working because that’s not how humans are wired. We are wired to survive and that drives the urges for happiness, the desire to live, to buy, to bucket-list, to binge-watch, to prime-delivery. We are not wired to plan for an unknown future with an unknown time frame and no magic 8-ball to what will even happen tomorrow much less 25+ years from now.”

To her credit, she put forth some suggestions, conversation starters of a sort—something that ostensibly might motivate people to “care”—things like:

  • The Life You Want—Top 5 questions to help you take control of your life
  • 3 Ways to Legally Pay Less in Taxes
  • The One Debt That Pays YOU interest—401k loans and a few perfect reasons to tap into them

Now, as someone who spends a good part of his day crafting (what he thinks are) compelling headlines and (obsessively) tracking clicks, that approach has some allure. (I mean, who wouldn’t want to know how to legally pay less in taxes?) That said, it’s not clear to me how much of this kind of thing is already out there, though I imagine in a world increasingly reliant on TikTok, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube to communicate complex (and sometimes farcical) messages, it’s a burgeoning field—or should be. 

Indeed, the more I considered the subject, the more it occurred to me that the essence of some pretty compelling messages are already imbedded (obscured?) in most of today’s benefit communications. Wouldn’t you be intrigued by the following topics?

  • How to get the free money you’re missing out on
  • Turn $5 a month into $50,000
  • You can get a pay increase without asking for it

There are some potential shortfalls, of course—there’s often a fine line between making complex things simpler and making them overly simplistic. But when all is said and done, to me, it’s not so much about simplifying our messages (though there’s that), but about getting people’s attention. But as I look at the bullets above, they strike me as short, near-term in focus, snappy, and ultimately action-oriented. Clickbait? Sure—but if you can get people’s attention, even for a minute, that’s an opportunity, a door-opener… a start… 

Of course, “starts” notwithstanding,[i] what matters isn’t just getting people’s attention, but motivating action—anything from a quick readiness assessment to taking steps to automatically increase their rate of contribution, or to make sure they are contributing at a rate sufficient to receive the full company match.

In sum, it’s one thing to get people’s attention—but then we have to keep it. 

[i] And thanks to automatic enrollment and qualified default investment alternatives (like target-date funds), millions of American workers have gotten a good start at saving and investing for retirement even if they don’t always appreciate it. 


All comments
Keith Shadrick
2 years 1 month ago
Nevin, As always you have a thoughtful response to the young persons assertions. Maybe she’s just looking for excuses and trying to justify her lack of engagement because of a lack of dopamine in her cerebral cortex. After 35 years of doing education meetings everyone knows they need to save. Saving is fundamental to our financial existence. I will give her that the concepts may seem complex after the saving concept in a retirement plan. But many are just looking for an excuse not to save.
Nevin Adams
2 years 1 month ago
oh, without question. But if "clickbait" questions helps get folks engaged...well, it's a small price to pay.