Managing Emotions During Life’s Disruptions

Sue BerginSue Bergin, President, S Bergin Communications

It seems like a new survey comes out daily revealing how ill-prepared Americans are for retirement. Well, to reference one, now there is a study that shows two-thirds of those who have saved for retirement may still fall behind.

TD Ameritrade’s 2015 Financial Disruptions Survey shows that unexpected events have cost Americans $2.5 trillion in lost savings. [1] Typical scenarios involve unemployment or having to take a lower-paying job, starting a family and/or buying a home, assuming a care-taking role, experiencing poor investment or business performance, suffering an accident/illness or disability, divorce, separation, or becoming a widow or widower.

No surprise that any one of these events would cause stress. As explained in the best-selling book, Personal Benchmark, Integrating Behavioral Finance and Investment Management, stress triggers a move away from a rational and cognitive decision-making style in favor of an effective style driven by emotions. Research also has suggested that we experience a 13% reduction in our intelligence during times of stress, as valuable psychophysiological resources are shunted away from the brain in service of our ability to fight or flee. [2]

When under stress, emotional decisions tend to be myopic. We privilege the now and forget about the future. Decisions made under stress are also reactive. Since our body is being signaled that something dangerous is imminent, we tend to react rather than reason. Reacting is great for swerving to miss a car, but not such a great impulse to follow when it comes to setting a course that will traverse the next five years.

What we learn from the study is that the average length of the disruption was five years. These weren’t one-time events or blips on a radar screen. They were prolonged periods over that necessitated several financial decisions.

84% of those who suffered from disruptions indicated that prior thereto, they had been saving $530 per month for long-term financial goals/retirement. During the “disruption” savings were reduced by almost $300, which had a cumulative adverse impact on their long-term goal, on average of over $16,200.

Interestingly, the TD study asked how they could be better prepared for the unexpected. The vast majority focused on what authors of Personal Benchmark suggest in helping to manage emotions during stressful times, which is to focus on matters within their control. The top five responses included:

  • save more (44%)
  • start saving earlier (36%)
  • better educate self on investments (26%)
  • consult with a financial advisor (19%)
  • pay closer attention to investments (15%)

There are two key takeaways from this study. Expect the unexpected by doing as much advanced planning and saving as possible. And, when life does throw you a curve ball, manage your emotions by focusing on matters with personal significance and those that are within your personal control.

[1] http://www.amtd.com/files/doc_downloads/research/Disruptor_Survey_2015.pdf

[2] Dr. Greg Davies, Managing Director, Head of Behavioral and Quantitative Investment Philosophy at Barclays Wealth

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are for informational purposes only. Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor.

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