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A Retirement Savings Santa?

Once upon a time, as Christmas neared, it was not uncommon for my wife and I to caution our occasionally misbehaving brood that they had best be attentive to how their (not uncommon) misbehaviors might be viewed by the big guy at the North Pole.

In support of that notion, a few years back—well, now it’s quite a few years back—when my kids still believed in the (SPOILER ALERT) reality of Santa Claus, we discovered an ingenious website that purported to offer a real-time assessment of their “naughty or nice” status.

No amount of threats or admonishments—in fact, nothing we ever said or did—ever managed to have the impact of that website—if not on their behaviors (they were kids, after all), then certainly on the level of their concern about the consequences. In fact, in one of his final years as a “believer,” my son (who, it must be acknowledged, had been particularly “naughty” that year) was on the verge of tears, panic-stricken– following a particularly worrisome “reading”—not that he’d misbehaved, and certainly not that he’d disappointed his parents—but that he'd find nothing under the Christmas tree but the lumps of coal[i] he so surely “deserved.”

Every year about this time we read survey after survey recounting the “bad” savings behaviors of American workers. And, despite the regularity of these findings, must of those responding to the ubiquitous surveys about their (lack of) retirement confidence and (lack of) preparations don’t offer much, if anything, in the way of rational responses to those shortcomings (even) they (apparently) see the connection between their retirement needs and their savings behaviors. 

Now, arguably in this pandemic-driven year those pressures have been magnified—but this is not a new concern. Indeed, the reality has long been that a significant number will, when asked to assess their retirement confidence, generally acknowledge that there are things they could—and know they should have—done differently. 

So if they know they’ve been “bad”—why don’t they do anything about it? Well, some certainly can’t—or can’t for a time—but most who respond to these surveys seem to fall in another category. It’s not that they actually believe in a retirement version of St. Nick, though that’s essentially how they seem to (mis)behave. They carry on as though, somehow, these “naughty” savings behaviors throughout the year(s) notwithstanding, they'll be able to pull the wool over the eyes of a myopic, portly old gentleman in a red snowsuit—that at their retirement date, despite their lack of attentiveness during the year(s), a benevolent elf will descend their chimneys with a bag full of cold cash from the North Pole.

Unfortunately, like my son in that week before Christmas, many worry too late to influence the outcome.

The volume of presents under our Christmas tree never really had anything to do with our kids’ behavior, of course. As parents, we nurtured their belief in Santa Claus as long as we thought we could (without subjecting them to the ridicule of their classmates), not because we truly expected it to modify their behavior (though we hoped, from time to time), but because we believed that children should have a chance to believe, if only for a little while, in those kinds of possibilities.

We all live in a world of possibilities, of course. But as adults we realize—or should—that those possibilities are frequently bounded in by the reality of our behaviors, as well as our circumstances. And while this is a season of giving, of coming together, of sharing with others, it is also a time of year when we should all be making a list and checking it twice—taking note, and making changes to what is “naughty and nice” about our personal behaviors—including our savings behaviors.

Yes, Virginia,[ii] as it turns out, there is a retirement savings Santa Claus—but he looks a lot like you, assisted by “helpers” like your workplace retirement plan, your employer’s matching contributions—and your trusted retirement plan advisors and providers.

Happy Holidays!

P.S.: Believe it or not, the Naughty or Nice website is still online, at Maybe it can help with your kids!

[i] In case you’re curious about that reference…

[ii] In case you’re curious as to that reference…