Ask Peter Atwater and he’ll tell you the impulse behind the choices investors make is all around their confidence—confidence in the future and around risk. Getting a client to think differently requires nearly a complete re-wire, not an easy feat.
“When confidence is low it’s about me, here, now,” says the president of the financial consultancy Financial Insyghts. And when confidence is high, “We see people overspending who don’t think there’s risk. Every behavior I make is going to be rewarded.”
Advisors understand that buying when confidence (and the market) is high and selling when it’s low is the exact opposite of sound financial practice. But managing client perception—and more important client anxiety—can be difficult.
Yet there are tools that can give advisors a bit of help, particularly consumer-facing programs that reps can co-opt and use to nudge their clients in a better direction.
Stick With It
Stickk, which aptly tags itself as the spot where “Change Starts Now,” lets users sign an online contract for any goal they want to meet—say, avoiding carbs, completing a Bachelor’s degree, learning to speak German or sticking to a budget and getting out of debt.
Co-founded by Yale economics professor Dean Karlan, Stickk’s premise is based on research around “commitment contracts,” tools Karlan believes can help people achieve those goals by giving them tangible incentives.
The free service starts with users signing their own contract, and then setting financial stakes—perhaps a certain amount of money triggered to charge to a credit card, which is then sent to any recipient. Perhaps the user points the potential cash to a political cause they intensely dislike; the motivation is there to stick to their goal. Users select a referee, such as a friend, family member or financial advisor, to monitor the progress and keep them honest. Or they can go it alone, pacing themselves until a deadline is met. It brings a more tangible, real-world incentive beyond simply having clients make promises to themselves, which are too easy to break because no one else is watching.
Buzzing In Your Ear
Another contract play is Beeminder. Similar to Stickk, it forces users to make a commitment to a goal—along with setting certain progress points that must be met each week. Here, falling off track requires a payment to Beeminder—a more powerful incentive; it’s almost like Beeminder is betting on your failure. Stickk users may choose their children get the reward if they fall short of their goal; an incentive to stay on track, for sure, but one that doesn’t have the same bite as Beeminder. Here, users pay their taskmaster, and that’s a little bit more distasteful.
While not a new app, reviews of the program are fairly high on both the Google Play store and Apple’s App Store, and they are free—as long as goals continue to be met. Beeminder does require some self-honesty—no one checks if someone cheats on their updates. But if you’re cheating yourself, there may be bigger issues afoot.
Visualize That True Cost
Advisors never like telling their clients that a kitchen upgrade isn’t the best choice right now—or worse, visiting the grandchildren should be postponed. Instead, they could let Planwise do it for them. The app helps users visualize how financial choices affect their bottom line.
Users enter several choices in the app, and the app projects forward to show how financial decisions today affect savings in the future. While not as focused on changing long-term behavior, seeing future account balances dip from purchases made today can be powerful. Free for consumers, Planwise can also be embedded on an advisor’s site for a fee.
In the end, the key is to help clients stop and think about their behavior—recording their actions or even visualizing their decisions in a new way. That push to look at actions more objectively is what Atwater believes is crucial to potential changing anyone’s behavior.
“It’s very difficult to change the hard-wiring that we have,” he says. “It’s about staying much more aware.”