Sketch Your Way to Financial Freedom

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The key to realizing your retirement goals, Jean Chatzky learns, is to draw on your own creative ingenuity

How long has it been since you drew a self-portrait? If you said second grade, you’re right on track with me – and I suspect many of us who realized at that early date the limitations of our artistic abilities (though my fifth-grade watercolor of spiky flowers still graces the wall at my mom’s).

It might be time to grab pencil and paper again and start sketching, however. Because some new research shows doing so might help you achieve your financial goals.

That’s what the Mark Murphy discovered. Murphy, the founder and CEO of Leadership IQ and the author of Hard Goals: The Secret to Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, recently conducted an experiment with employees at a large healthcare company. He asked them to draw one self-portrait of how they felt day-to-day, then another showing how they would feel if they were given $500,000, then he measured how connected they felt to their goals. Seeing themselves less worried, less anxious, more happy and more carefree helped them connect emotionally to their goals.

Why does this work? According to Murphy, in order to be attainable, goals must meet four criteria: They must be heartfelt, animated, required and difficult. In other words, you need to have an emotional attachment to the goal, you should be able to visualize it, you need to feel a sense of urgency and the goal should be pushing you out of your comfort zone a little bit.

As far as their retirement goals are concerned, most people don’t have a problem with the last two. The media – myself included – spends a good chunk of time driving home the fact that saving for retirement is important, required, non-negotiable in this age of uncertain Social Security. We hit hard the fact that almost two thirds of workers say that they’re saving for retirement, more than half have less than $25,000 banked, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute’s 2011 Retirement Confidence Survey. And I think we can all agree that amassing a large sum of money is hard, no matter how much time you have left on the table.

The first two are the sticking points, at least for most people, because our pesky brains get in the way. It’s very difficult to have an emotional attachment to something that is so far away, much less visualize it. Why pass on the new shoes that you can wear tomorrow in favor of an extra $100 toward a retirement that is 10 or 20 years in the future?

“In retirement, if someone says you have to save money, you usually don’t think ‘why do I care about this?’ or ‘why am I emotionally attached to this?’” says Murphy. “No, it just becomes an abstract money goal – here’s a number and that’s it. But people don’t care about the numbers per se. With the drawing of the pictures, the reasons that they do care about the goal – that they may not even realize – come out.” In other words, you take the time to think about what saving that amount of money would mean for your life – more time with your grandchildren, a few days a week on the golf course, sunny vacations with your spouse – and that takes the goal out of the practical and into the emotional. When we’re emotionally connected to something, we’re more likely to fight for it.

So how do you play along at home? It’s easy. If you haven’t run the numbers to estimate how much you’ll actually need for retirement, spend some time with Choose to Save’s Ballpark E$timate. You’ll quickly learn that $25,000 isn’t going to cut it. Then take a piece of paper and a pencil, and imagine a retirement funded by the amount of money the Ballpark E$timate told you to shoot for. What will you be doing? What will having that money at your disposal mean for your life? Draw it out, in detail, including pictures of yourself engaged in the experiences that kind of money could buy. Then hang it where you’ll see it every day – near your mirror, by your computer, on the fridge. You can even make smaller versions of your drawing to keep in your wallet (I suggest wrapping one around your credit card). “People are such visual creatures, and this brings the future into the reality and makes it more vivid for them,” explains Murphy.

Finally, take the time to revisit your drawing every couple months or so. Are you making progress? Has your vision changed? If so, make the necessary tweaks, says Murphy. “You need to keep re-thinking this, keep reenergizing the goal emotionally, because it’s not as good when it’s a one shot activity.” You might also write down how much you have saved and keep updating that every month — because the closer you get to your magic number, the more momentum you have to reach it.

Oh, and one last thing: Murphy says this strategy works for other, non-financial goals, too, like weight loss. Good to know.

2 comments so far.

  1. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    This is just another way to make people feel as though they have failed. It is easy to tell someone they aren’t successful because they didn’t visualize hard enough. It is a mind game played out in companies across the country. It is usually administered by HR or management consultants to pad their bottom line.

    You can do everything right as many Americans did before the financial mess on Wall Street and still lose it all to a tanked economy, crooked brokers or being downsized from a job. We can be prudent and save every spare dime and end up broke because of astronomical medical bills. No amount of visualizing is going to make them go away.

    The book, The Secret, fairly flew off book shelves as people tried to visualize their lives improving. The author of this book and many of these psychological portraits forgot to tell readers a few of the most important ingredients to success: a decent education, a secure job, knowing how to avoid those out to fleece them. It helps if people know how to manage their money and not rack up credit card debt.

    These studies also fail to mention that in some states one out of every three or four babies is born to an unwed mother who hasn’t finished high school. No amount of heartfelt emotion is going to improve their lives without an education or skills,

    The reality of a productive work place is management having the backs of employees and empowering them to help improve their work and personal lives. If you look at the best companies to work for certain facts emerge. The employees are treated as assets to the companies that they work for. The parent companies encourage all employees to network and find viable solutions to problems. They provide training and tuition reimbursement. The employees repay by keeping up standards or surpassing goals.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Oh, Chris, we are singing the same tune. Education, education, education… and not the watered-down, near-Soviet-style rote memorization we seem to have these days in deference to the SOL tests. Real education means learning how to think critically, think for yourself, do original research. Those are the skills that lead to good decision-making. And YES, nationwide we are sorely, sorely lacking in financial education. It seems not to be taught in school, and parents are barely equipped to handle their own finances, much less teach good financial practices to their kids.