In one of his famous fables, Aesop told us of the grasshopper who spent his Summer singing in the long grasses and generally having a wonderful time, whilst his neighbour the Ant spent that same summer industriously storing up food for winter.  As with most fables, the end of the tale came with a clear moral message – the ant enjoyed his food throughout the long harsh winter, whilst the grasshopper wasted away with hunger.

Fast-forward 14 centuries, and what have we learned from this cautionary tale?  Well, considering statistics from reports such as Ireland’s national risk assessment (August 2019) which indicated that just 35% of private sector workers have their own pension and the CFSI pulse report (Nov 2018) suggesting that 42% of adults in the US are not saving for retirement at all, then it would seem that many of us are opting to ‘live for today’ like our friend the grasshopper.

So how can financial advisors hope to encourage a focus on the future where Aesop’s warnings failed?  

Current Pain for Future Gain

Behavioural research suggests that one of the reasons many people fail to prioritise their future needs is that they just don’t connect with their future selves.  And this goes beyond retirement savings of course; eating healthily and exercising regularly are amongst the other things that many people are unwilling to endure today despite the obvious benefits for our future selves.

Hershfield et al, at Stanford University’s Department of Psychology conducted a study in 2011 where they showed college students pictures of themselves. One group were shown photos of their current selves, whilst another group were shown images of their faces digitally altered to appear 40 years older.

When the researches then asked the students about their retirement savings intentions, the students in the latter group said that they would be inclined to allocate around 30% more to their retirement. This suggests that seeing your future self as someone more than a stranger builds a feeling of connectedness that makes you care more about the person that you will become.

Building The Connection To The Future Self

If showing clients digitally aged photographs of themselves is not a viable option for a financial advisor, what can we do to encourage our clients to connect with the needs of their future selves?

Maybe the secret lies in asking the right questions.

Duke University’s professor of psychology and behavioural economics, Dan Ariely, proposes asking clients questions which encourage them to really think about the way they want to live during retirement.  By discovering what specific activities they wish to engage in at a time when they have an extra eight or ten hours of free time during their day, it will expose just how much income is required. After all, being busy at work all day is a fairly cost-effective way of living compared to all that free time!  Questions which require specific answers rather than vague assumptions, for example thinking of a specific retirement date in the future, will also help people begin to really connect with their future needs.

It requires imagination to really consider the future enough to be willing to make more sacrifices today. As financial advisors, the more our questions and discussions encourage our clients to focus in detail on what they want to see, do and achieve; where and who they want to travel with for example, the easier it will be for them to stop seeing the future in the vague abstract and start caring more about the needs and wants they will have going forward.

And yes, that means that the ‘current self’ needs to make some sacrifices in the here and now – but there’s no doubt that the ‘future self’ will look back and say…“Thank you!”…

This article was published in the Voyant ‘Voyage’ online magazine (January 2020).

Gerard O’Brien LL.B LL.M CFP® QFA is a Certified Financial Planner and the Owner of Heritage Wealth Management, a Financial Planning practice based at 27 Cook Street, Cork.

For more information, contact Gerard at

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