Financial gerontology: a tonic for retirees

Merrill Lynch made business page headlines this year by appointing Baltimore County native Cynthia Hutchins to the newly created post of director of financial gerontology.

Ms. Hutchins is charged with teaching the company's nearly 14,000 financial advisers how to talk to baby boomer clients about more than stocks and bonds — to help those planning to end their working lives understand the complexities and the realities of retiring.

It is a smart move. More than 42 percent of the average financial advisor's client base is of baby boomer age, and another 36 percent is older than 67. It helps if you understand what they are experiencing.

Ms. Hutchins, 54, graduated from Towson and worked as a financial adviser for more than two decades in Bel Air, the last 15 with Merrill Lynch.

She decided to return to school at the University of Southern California to earn a master's degree in gerontology. She said she wanted to know more about the issues of aging because that's what she found herself talking to her clients about.

"Our financial advisers acknowledged that their clients' needs and life priorities have evolved as a result of increased longevity," she said in an exchange of emails. "They are anxious to understand these changes and to provide a more holistic, goals-based approach to their clients' retirement planning."

And, perhaps, a more realistic approach.

Many boomers are determined to remain in their homes, but they need to understand the financial ramifications of adding a first floor bedroom and bathroom or paying for outside help.

When most financial advisers talk to clients about health care, it's about insurance policies and premiums. But most pre-retirees want to know more about what they can expect to pay in out-of-pocket expenses — not to mention long-term care insurance or nursing home costs.

Surveys are showing that those who seek financial advice want more than just the quarterly update of market conditions. They want their advisers to understand their lifestyles and their retirement goals. Are the items on my bucket list doable?

According to the non-profit Employee Benefit Research Institute, nearly 60 percent of workers 55 and older have less than $100,000 in retirement savings — 24 percent have saved less than $1,000.

And 60 percent of retirees say retirement is not less stressful than working — and the biggest stressor is money.

So many of us have seen our defined benefit pensions shrink or disappear, leaving us just Social Security and our savings to live on.

More bad news: We are going to live longer, and our health is going to get worse as we age. A healthy couple entering retirement at age 65 will need $220,000 to cover out-of-pocket expenses before they die — and that doesn't count long-term care.

Boomers have been caught off guard by the changing retirement landscape, and the millennials would be wise to learn from us and save as much as they can while they are working. But what those of us on the cusp of retirement don't need right now is someone talking to us about a 60/40 split between stocks and bonds.

We need somebody to help us set an attainable retirement goal, help us reach it, and then help us budget it to last. We need someone to tell us how much longer we need to work — supposing we have a choice.

But we also need someone who can push back when we say we want to quit now, or spend our retirement money while we are healthy enough to enjoy it.

Someone to help us think about whether we can afford to help out a family member in financial trouble or pay for a grandchild's education — and why those things are important to us.

And we also need someone who can talk with authority about the other changes retirement brings — the loss of a sense of relevance, what happens when you don't have a room full of co-workers to talk to every day, how a marriage can change.

"All the feedback has been positive," said Ms. Hutchins. "Several people have commented to me that they are thrilled to finally see this from the financial services industry.

"Many have said it was long overdue."

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at and @SusanReimer on


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