Two Big Blind Spots Wealthy People Have About Retirement

High-net-worth people, like everyone else, underestimate their longevity, rising costs in retirement and the emotional impact of their lifestyle changes.

A retired couple sit at their kitchen island and look at paperwork and a laptop.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Retirement is about so much more than money. If wealth were enough, affluent people would have no issues transitioning into their retirement years. But talk to high-net-worth people, and they’ll tell you a different story.

We at Northwestern Mutual did just that in a research study of wealthy Americans. We found they share a pair of blind spots when it comes to retirement planning. Recognizing and getting ahead of these blind spots early could mean the difference between exhilaration and anxiety in retirement.

More important, the retirement challenges that wealthy people face aren’t unique to them. Here’s the key point: Money alone won’t spare you from retirement blind spots.

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Blind spot #1: Longevity and legacy

People tend to underestimate their life expectancy, and often it’s by more than just a couple of years. The average high-net-worth person in our study said they expect to live to the age of 81. Given their affluence and ability to afford preventive care, a financial adviser might suggest their plan for retirement should be designed to last until age 100.

Advances in health care and lifestyle improvements have increased life expectancies worldwide. While it’s true that not everyone will make it to triple digits, there is a reasonable chance many people will, and a good financial plan has to factor in that possibility.

Underestimating longevity can have severe financial consequences, leaving people — including the wealthy — vulnerable to sacrificing other, meaningful financial goals.

Our research found that as wealthy people age, their confidence in their life savings grows. But at every stage of the retirement journey, they are underestimating their lifespan by up to an average of two decades! Moreover, they are misjudging their exposure to other retirement risks that could occur over that 20-year period: rising inflation and taxes, a long-term care event, rising health care costs, market volatility and more.

Interestingly, this undervaluing of retirement years is constant as years go by. People's life expectancy expectations before retirement, at retirement and in retirement are almost identical.

When told about the 20-year gap between their expectations and a possible reality, wealthy Americans are not particularly worried that they will outlive their life savings. But they are concerned that these extra costs could diminish the wealth they can leave behind as a legacy — to family and beloved philanthropic causes.

To avoid this blind spot, people need to plan for a retirement that may last 30 years or more. To put that into context, it could be close to or just as long as their working lives.

Many people, especially wealthier clients, are driven and professionally successful, so it can help to consider retirement like something of a second career. It needs work and focus to get it right. It can take unexpected twists and turns. It requires a financial plan that addresses near-term and long-term needs, and it helps to be able to see around corners. That’s why it’s important to build a comprehensive plan that protects what you’ve already built while also creating future prosperity.

Research proves that a plan that elegantly combines investments with permanent life insurance and annuities deliver superior financial results more often than an investments-only approach.

Blind spot #2: The purpose plunge

Blind spot number two is all about expectations and reality. On average, as wealthy people near retirement, their sense of personal purpose and feelings about hobbies, interests and passions peak. But, surprisingly, once they transition into retirement, it plummets by about 10%.

Our research found that wealthy Americans’ feelings were influenced by two key factors: loss of social status and a “tyranny of choices.” Many define their identity and purpose through their work — and those structures and social connections can be hard to replace. In fact, several wealthy Americans told us that retirement can feel like “dropping out of society” — and as a result, they seek opportunities to serve as a consultant or a mentor and find value in maintaining a small practice for select clients, on their terms.

Moreover, these wealthy retirees have so many opportunities, it can feel difficult to choose. Indecision often leads to stagnation and apathy.

One way to avoid or at least mitigate the impact of the purpose plunge is to recognize the possibility that it could happen. If people aren’t expecting the early years of retirement to be a challenge, they’re more vulnerable to feeling unfulfilled. If you know that retirement may be hard at first, you can plan ahead.

Our advisers are constantly having conversations with their clients about all the ways to prepare for retirement — beyond the financial. They encourage our high-net-worth clients to think about activities and hobbies that may have taken a back seat during their working years. Identify possible new interests, mentorship opportunities, philanthropic endeavors, courses, workshops and clubs. Ideally, it’s a combination of different activities that will feed their interests and curiosity, keep them engaged, motivated and inspired. This is true for anyone, regardless of their financial status.

This type of planning is best done intentionally rather than informally, and professional financial advice can help. In fact, our research found that wealthy people who work with an adviser are significantly less vulnerable to the purpose plunge than those who go it alone.

Bottom line: The retirement years for high-net-worth people can and should be a long, exciting and highly fulfilling period of life. But as with most things, it doesn’t happen automatically, it’s not something that can be bought, and it needs thoughtful planning.

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This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Aditi Javeri Gokhale
Chief Strategy Officer, President of Retail Investments and Head of Institutional Investments, Northwestern Mutual

Aditi Javeri Gokhale holds executive accountabilities for Northwestern Mutual’s strategy to drive growth, competitiveness and relevance. In addition, she leads teams that oversee more than $540 billion in company and client assets, including over $325 billion in the institutional investment portfolio and $215 billion in retail client assets. She is also accountable for NM Future Ventures (the company’s venture investing arm) along with digital disruptor, Wyshbox.