“You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout…”
Those are, of course, the opening lyrics to that holiday classic, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” And while the tune is jaunty enough, the message—that there’s some kind of elfin “eye in the sky” keeping tabs on us has always struck me as just a little bit… creepy.
That said, 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 that 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[i] that purported to offer a real-time assessment of their “naughty or nice” status.
Indeed, no amount of parental 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 their level of 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[ii]”—concerned not so much that he’d misbehaved, and certainly not that he’d disappointed his parents with his misbehaviors—but that as a result, he'd find nothing under our Christmas tree but the lumps of coal[iii] he so surely “deserved.”
Making a List?
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 their (lack of) preparations don’t offer much, if anything, in the way of rational responses to those shortcomings (even) though they (apparently) see a connection between their retirement needs and their savings (mis)behaviors.
Now, arguably with inflation fears looming ever larger, 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. Retirees routinely bemoan and regret their lack of attention to such things. Sadly, if there’s anything as predictable as the end of year regrets, it’s the perennial list of new year’s resolutions to (finally) do something about it.
So if they know they’ve been “naughty”—why don’t they do something 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 that myopic, portly old gentleman in a red snowsuit—and that at their retirement date, despite their lack of attentiveness during the year(s), that benevolent elf will descend their retirement chimneys with a bag full of cold, hard cash from the North Pole. Unfortunately, like my son in that week before Christmas, many worry too late to meaningfully influence the outcome.
A World of Possibilities
Now, the volume of presents under our Christmas tree never really had anything to do with our kids’ behavior. 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 our own retirement list and checking it twice—taking note, and making changes to what is “naughty and nice” about our personal behaviors—including our savings behaviors. To “be good,” not for “goodness” sake, but for what we all hope is the “goodness” of financial “freedom” in our lives.
Yes, Virginia,[iv] 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.
[ii] And yes, though this was before smartphones, there was a tendency to constantly check in. That said, there do appear to be a number of apps online now that purport to fulfill a similar function.
[iii] For those unfamiliar with that reference: https://abc7chicago.com/st-nicholas-day-saint-lumps-of-coal/4846172/
[iv] In case you’re curious as to that reference… https://www.newseum.org/exhibits/online/yes-virginia-there-is-a-santa-claus/