Thinking about retirement planning can be a stressful experience for a lot of us. It’s certainly not something to get excited about. Randy Carver, the author of Ultimate Vacation, looks at it differently. Whereas most financial planning companies are about selling products, he looks at retirement as creating a vision.

In his new book, he walks readers through that process. How will you visualize and plan for your ultimate vacation without decreasing the quality of your life today? In our conversation, Randy makes some fascinating and refreshing points about how to look at retirement and retirement planning from a refreshing point of view and provides some food for thought about how longevity and technology have shifted the way we look at retirement.

Randy knows–he’s the founder of Carver Financial Services, which is one of the largest independent financial services offices in the country, where he manages 1.7 billion dollars in assets. He’s also been named a top adviser by Baron’s, Forbes and The Financial Times, and quoted in publications such as USA Today, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

Nikki Van Noy: Randy, before we started to press record here, you were telling me an anecdote about how you used to have a radio show that broke the Internet. Is that in any way related to what you’re writing about in your book?

Randy Carver: Well, you know, the radio show actually covered a lot of the topics more broadly, but the book is certainly more refined. It was about 20 years ago that happened.

Nikki Van Noy: Wow.

Randy Carver: Now I have 20 years of experience to include in the book.

Nikki Van Noy: Just to fill listeners in on this conversation, we were talking about how you did this Internet radio show in the earlier days of the Internet and a million people logged on and broke it, which is such a fabulous story. Much harder to break the Internet these days.

Randy Carver: It really is.

Nikki Van Noy: So, let’s start by talking a little bit about your background. You are the founder of Carver Financial Services, which is one of the largest independent financial service offices in the country. You guys manage 1.5 billion dollars in assets. Tell me how you got to this place? What was your path here?

Randy Carver: You know, our firm is different. I got into the business almost by accident, but wanting to build a business to make people’s lives better. It wasn’t about the financial planning–that was more of a tool to accomplish the bigger goal. When I got into the industry, originally, what I saw is that most firms were very product-focused and very sales driven, as opposed to vision-focused or service driven. After about three years, I decided to start my own firm in 1990, with the vision of simply making people’s lives better and developing and refining a process to do that.

And so, over the years, that’s really been what’s driven us, but in so doing, what we found is that people tell their friends. Quite frankly, we’re in a small mid-west town and, as you said, we manage just over 1.5 billion dollars for people all over the world. It’s 99% word of mouth–organic referrals. In fact, at this point, that’s pretty much how all of our clients come to us, a friend or a family member tells them about the process or what we’re doing, and they want to learn more.

Nikki Van Noy: Wow, it’s unbelievable to me that you guys are doing something different. Looking at your book cover, first of all, the title is Ultimate Vacation and it reminds me of being at the beach. It’s sunglasses with the reflection of a palm tree and blue skies and just about the last cover, you would expect to see for a book that is ultimately about retirement savings, but also about figuring out how to save while still living a good quality of life before that.

Talk to me a little bit about how you look at that and how your point of view is different from that of other people?

Randy Carver: Again, I think in the industry and generally, financial planning is just that, it’s based on numbers and investments and having so much money. Our take is, again, those are just a means to an end. We want to know what someone’s personal vision is. What do they want to do? What does retirement look like? Quite honestly, one of the biggest problems I think is people don’t know.

Someone will say, I want to retire. Well when do you want to retire? Maybe they know, I want to retire at 65. Well, tell me what the day looks like? And they just don’t know. I think what we do that’s very different is we start with trying to help somebody understand their vision and really, the book focuses partially on that, but also on the idea that you don’t have to starve today to have a good future.

I think sometimes, the whole concept of retirement is kind of either too far away, or just too big and scary and so people don’t want to tackle it. Or, the third issue is people think, boy, I’ve just barely doing what I want to do today, I don’t want to give that up. I need to deal with that, and I’ll get to retirement in the future.

So, the idea is I think, first of all, people need to figure out what they want, but once they do that, then it’s absolutely possible to enjoy today and have a great life but at the same time, prepare for the future.

Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, I mean, I think you really touched on something here which I know I feel as someone who is saving for retirement. It’s so hard, even if we know, we’re hopefully all going to land there someday. It is sort of this elusive concept, it’s really hard to put yourself in that place where you can really envision what retirement looks like for you without freaking out in the process because it can seem daunting.

So, how do you help guide people into that space where they can really look realistically at, “Okay, what do I want my retirement to look like?”

It’s Like Planning a Vacation

Randy Carver: Yeah, exactly, that’s part of what the book looks at. I think the way to look at it is like planning a trip. First of all, you need to know where you want to go. You know, if you just say, I want to go on vacation, that’s not going to really help. You say, I want to go on vacation to Europe, that’s a little better. But when do you want to go? How do you want to get there? Those types of things.

The premise is that looking at retirement is a lot like planning the ultimate vacation. First, they want to figure out, what do I want to do when I get there? When do I want to get there? And how do I want to get there? But once we have an idea–if someone says I want to retire when I’m 60 or 65 or 70 and here’s what I want my day to look like, we can work backward and really break it down into manageable steps.

So, once we know when you want to get there, then we can start to look at how to get there and we can get a better idea of where you are today and what we need to do. It is kind of like picking the route for a trip, but again, as we talked about, I think the industry gets it wrong that they look at the tools or the vehicles first.

They say, this is a good investment, or this is a bad investment without really knowing what we’re trying to do, which I think is absolutely wrong. It would be like, if you’re planning a trip to Europe and you just looked at vehicles, and said, “Wow, Ferrari is a really good car!” Well, it is a good car, but it’s not going to get you to Europe. We need to be looking at planes or boats. So, it’s the wrong vehicle for the journey.

One of the things that I think is very important is not to get it backwards as far as that goes.

It’s as like you said, I think people get so freaked out about how daunting it is that they just don’t start, or it becomes so overwhelming, so you put it off. The other mistake we see a lot of is that people plan based on their parent’s experiences. It used to be people retired at 65 and they died at 70. Now, people retire at 55 and they never die. They live forever.

And so, for a lot of people, retirement could be longer than they worked, and I think that we need to plan for that and understand that our parent’s experience isn’t our experience. That’s a lot of what the book starts to get into is trying to make it not just understandable like planning a trip but going to the steps of figuring out what you need to do. Once we understand that, I don’t think it’s that frightening at all.

Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, you know, as you were talking, it struck me that this really is just a mindset shift because I mean, I can sit and plan a vacation and I can save for a vacation because it’s saving for a reward. I definitely visualize my vacation beforehand as I’m saving. I love that idea. It really frames retirement in a different way.

Randy Carver: Exactly.

Nikki Van Noy: You spoke to something that I think a lot of us think about when it comes to retirement, there is this unknown equation because we don’t know how long we’re going to be here for. How do you help people work with that?

Randy Carver: That’s a great question because as we know, I think that the simple answer is you want to hope for the best, but plan for the worst. In this case, the worst is you live to be about 110 years old. One of the fears people have is outliving their money.

Certainly, one of the questions we have all the time is, how much do I need to retire? Unfortunately, the answer is well, it depends on what you want that vacation to look like. You know, what are you doing and how are you going to do it? I think again, the first step is figuring out what the optimal retirement is based on your personal vision and planning for a lot longer than we generally plan. We generally plan to 90 or 100 and it’s interesting because people say well, my family doesn’t live that long, or I’m just not healthy. What I find ironic is, the people who think they’re going to keel over tomorrow, tend to live forever.

The 50-year-old jogging vegans, they keel over in their driveways. There’s no way to know. Especially when you have a spouse or other people that depend on you, it’s really important to plan for that. We look at that kind of like road hazards when you’re traveling. There are always things that come up, but for the most part, if you’re prepared, it’s more of an annoyance than really a problem.

The second thing I think that’s really important is that you have to monitor your progress. This is not a onetime thing, it’s a dynamic process that it becomes part of your life. And again, I think it can be fun. You know, often, a vacation might be a week, but you spend a year planning it.

The planning can be a lot of fun as you research it, you get into it, and the same thing with retirement. You can be involved or not involved. You know, on a vacation, you might hire a travel agent, or you might do it all yourself. Absolutely the same thing with retirement, but the idea with the book is to give you some of the things to think about, whether you choose to use a professional advisor, A.K.A a travel agent, or you choose to do it yourself, but it gives you that kind of guide.

Nikki Van Noy: Yeah. I love that. Really, talking to you, it just makes me realizes what a silly thing it is that there are a lot of us who just pretend like this is not going to happen. You know what I mean? It’s easy to see how you can get yourself into a real jam that way if you’re not willing to sit down and really look at what it is going to look like.

Randy Carver: Well, the other two things I think are important is I think there’s this predisposition to think of retirement as kind of sitting in a rocking chair doing nothing and that’s not the truth. People are doing stuff. We do a lot of trips for our clients because people have been so successful saving, we want them to enjoy what they have.

We started doing trips 20 years ago and again, people are very active. I think once you have that vision of something that’s fun, it’s really not retirement so much as a change, another kind of journey or adventure, another phase to your life.

So instead of retired, it’s maybe a re-fired kind of thing. It is something to get excited about.

Nikki Van Noy: What do you mean by you started doing trips for your clients? Were you guys creating trips or planning? What did that look like?

Another Phase

Randy Carver: What happened was our clients worked their whole lives, they’d saved, and they had a nice nest egg, and now they weren’t necessarily enjoying it, or they didn’t know what to do. About 25 years ago, we started doing an annual trip for the clients–it’s something they wouldn’t or couldn’t do on their own, and we’d take care of everything.

We’ve gone to the Amazon river, we’ve gone to Israel, we went to Cuba, we just went to South Africa. We take care of every aspect of the trip.

Nikki Van Noy: Randy, that is so cool. I’ve never heard anything like this from someone in the financial sector. I love that.

Randy Carver: Well, it helps build community too because what happens is, they find other likeminded people, and then they hang out. When they come home, they do things together, and it’s building relationships with people that are a little bit different.

Nikki Van Noy: Wow, I have to imagine you see some incredible things through that. Are there any experiences that really stand out in your mind from one of those trips you can share?

Randy Carver: You know, it’s amazing. I have one couple, he’s 90 and his wife is 86. He’s actually going to retire this year–he owns his company still. I think it’s what’s keeping him alive.

Nikki Van Noy: Yeah.

Randy Carver: But to see them do stuff in the Amazon, hiking, it’s just amazing to me. But the most amazing thing to me, because I’ve been in the industry just over 30 years now–I started very young. I opened my first office when I was 21 years old.

Nikki Van Noy: Wow.

Randy Carver: When I set up my company, I was 26, so I’m going to be around hopefully quite a while, but the most amazing thing is to see people that we met 20 or 30 years ago and have them say, I never imagined I could do all these things–we have so much peace of mind. We are not worried about running out of money, because we have a plan and we’re having fun.

That’s the most incredible thing for me to see that. By contrast, when they say our friends don’t know how we have more money today than we did when we retired. That was really part of the reason for doing the book. We can’t reach that many people face to face, there’s only so many people our team can meet with, but with the book, hopefully, we can reach out to thousands and have them enjoy the same benefits our clients are seeing.

Nikki Van Noy: Just so that I understand what you are saying, you are saying these people have been set up in such a way that their money is just continuing to compound, so their worth is going up instead of down during retirement, is that right?

Randy Carver: In some cases, absolutely. They have more money now than when they retired, and it is a piece of mind thing. You know, people sometimes want to pass it on, sometimes they want to give it to charity, but I think the most important thing is that peace of mind. They are not worried about if something happens, such as a catastrophic medical expense, or what if they want to do something–they are just not worried about that.

Once you take that concern off the table, quite frankly I think people are healthier and they just enjoy themselves more. Again, that is really the reason for writing the book–so that we could try to communicate with people we wouldn’t ordinarily reach.

Nikki Van Noy: Wow. Since you have been in the industry for so long, I am curious if your thoughts about financial planning or retirement have shifted or evolved in any major way since the time you first started your company when you were 21.

Randy Carver: Yeah, you know it is amazing how much has changed and what hasn’t. If you think back to when we started, there was no Internet. If you wanted to communicate with someone, you wrote them a letter or you called them. We didn’t have fax machines. They were just coming out at the time and actually that is a side story. It was interesting because when the Internet came out in 1995, I wanted to be able to email clients, and there was no Internet provider in our county.

I actually set up the first ISP in Lake County, Ohio. I set up an Internet company so we could have an email for our clients, which is why we ended up getting into our radio show and all the other stuff. So certainly, I am a tech junkie. Having said that, what is interesting is I don’t think that the planning concepts have changed at all. The vehicles have changed 100%. The investments today are totally different than 10 or 20 years ago.

Again, it comes back to the original point, if you’re investment centric, I think it is certainly not geared towards the individual and it is going to become obsolete. The other thing I have seen again is when we started, retirement was much shorter because people retired at 60 or 65 and they really didn’t live as long–they literally were dying at 70 or 72. Now people retire at 50 or 55 and they are living much longer.

I think that longevity risk it’s one of the biggest problems people face potentially if they’re not prepared for it. As an industry, the other thing I am seeing more recently is to move away from talking to people and a move to trying to use technology to replace human contact. So, you’ll hear a lot about “robo advising.”

They do the same thing for everybody and actually there were just a number of articles in the mainstream media about this. So actually, we are increasing our people in and we use steadier technology to support what we do. We’ve actually increased the contact. We don’t have voice mail. For example, you are going to talk to a person. I think it is interesting the way that technology is being used to replace people and honestly, I don’t think it is a good thing.

It will be a problem because again, all of this stuff is focused on the numbers and the money and that is not what people are about. People want to do things. They are not investing typically just to make money, they are investing to do something, whether it is pay for kid’s education, or take a trip, or buy a second home, or buy a boat or an airplane or something, but it is not about the money. It is about experiences.

Nikki Van Noy: You know both of those things you just mentioned, the longer lifespan and this turn toward technology–it struck me as I was hearing you talk that we are in this weird sort of transition period in so many ways right now figuring out how life fits together. With all of these gifts that we really have, but they are gifts that change things in a lot of ways. So, I guess I haven’t really thought much about this, but it strikes me as sad, that we do have this ability to live longer now.

Most people do, the average age is shifting up but rather than that being something that we are able to wholesale celebrate, instead there is this fear that comes with it and that seems like a gap that we have to bridge.

Randy Carver: I think a lot of that has to do with, again, you know the uncertainty breeds fear if we don’t know something. So, once somebody has a better handle on what they want to do and how they want to get there, I think it really helps alleviate a lot of that concern and stress. Certainly, who knows what the future holds, but it is amazing how quickly things are changing.

So, you know, one of the problems too with traditional financial planning is people create this plan and throw it out on a shelf and they never look at it again. But frankly, it’s no good, as soon as it is done things are going to change. It is more of a dynamic process. You know, if you are on vacation, you can plan a lot, but certainly things are going to happen. Flights get canceled, you run into bad weather, you know the hotel is oversold, et cetera. But again, if you’ve got a good guide those are just experiences, they are not problems. So, it is the same thing I think with planning, as we said it is kind of the ultimate vacation.

You know the other thing is I think people have a mindset that the retirement date is the goal post and it really isn’t. I would say that the goal post is when you pass away. Retirement is just a shift from building assets to using your assets. You have worked your life to accumulate, now you are going to turn them on so they can support you.

Nikki Van Noy: Okay. I can actually feel myself relaxing a little bit listening to you talk. These are just such fear-filled topics that we don’t really talk about. It is easier to avoid them or to stay up in this space of like, “Well, I am not going to think about it. I will think about that later.”

Using Your Assets

Randy Carver: Well it is overwhelming. You know, you are talking about technology and change. When we started in the industry, one of the biggest roles I think of a financial adviser was getting someone’s information. If you got a 401(k) statement once a year or the markets did something that you didn’t know for a couple of days, it might be in the newspaper. Well now, it is like drinking from a fire hose.

I think that the problem is you are getting so much information that’s incomplete or just wrong or it is not applicable, that the role of an adviser, or at least being educated for yourself, is how you sit through this deluge to find out what is relevant to you. Again, I think that helps eliminate some of that fear. Thinking back to your question, one thing I will say that has changed, the media has always had a negative bias and a sensational bias, but since the 2016 election, it is almost 100% negative. I think people forget that the role of media today especially cable news, is not to inform.

It is to sell advertising. It is entertainment. So back in the day when you had your Tom Brokaw on NBC and ABC, it was real news. Today, whether you are on the left, the right, or the center, I think most of it is entertainment. The problem is they’re giving you very short-term information. When you think about retirement, it is a long-term solution we need, and so we can kind of lose the forest from the trees as we get deluged with all of this stuff. That is where having a plan and knowing what you are trying to do can be of immense help and create some peace of mind.

One of the things that we hope with the book is whomever someone chooses to consult with–an adviser or on their own–the book gives them enough information to ask the right questions and to make informed decisions, as opposed to just blindly going in.

Nikki Van Noy: Excellent. So, one last thing I want to be sure to talk to you about because I feel like this will be of interest to a lot of listeners is this idea that we can accomplish this without sacrificing from our life today. Can you speak to that a little bit?

Randy Carver: It’s a great question because I think more than ever people feel like they are barely getting by or they are falling behind. It comes down to really looking at the numbers, where people are spending money and what they are saving and certainly creating some priorities. As you indicated, people do save for vacations and they do it because it is fun and they look forward to it, and they can make the numbers work.

It is the exact same thing saving for retirement, that once it is more of a fun definable goal, we can make it a manageable thing. It is not that hard, but a lot of it comes down to prioritizing what is important and then figuring out the best way to do it. Certainly, it is not necessarily about just making more money. It may be about saving money somehow. If you can reduce your taxes, for example, which I talk about in the book, that puts more money in your pocket.

That money can be used towards retirement or anything else you want to do today. So, one of the things we get into is how to figure out what are you really doing today–are you allocating your resources as efficiently as possible? A lot of times, it is just a matter of making a few tweaks, nothing major.

Nikki Van Noy: This is kind of neither here nor there, but I think my brain started firing away based on some of the things you were talking about earlier about how technology has changed things in some ways that maybe we are not consciously aware of. What occurred to me is that I am pretty financially responsible, however, one way technology has definitely impacted my financial life is Amazon. I used to think before I went out to buy things and now, if I think I need something, I just press a couple of buttons and it is there. There is not the discernment that there used to be without that technology.

Randy Carver: And it is worse than that because I say if you like this, you are going to like that. You look and you go, “Yes, I do like that. No, I like that,” and I need all of these things. Yeah, I have to admit I am a bit of an Amazon junkie myself. You know the nice thing about those things though, it may be very depressing, but you can track exactly what you are spending. One of the things that we talk about is getting a handle on how much you really are spending.

To a large extent, people have no idea. As you said, the technology makes it very easy to do a lot of things we didn’t do before, but it also gives us a tool to monitor real-time what our progress is, whether it is saving for retirement, maybe it is saving for a trip.

Nikki Van Noy: Can you talk to that a little bit? Maybe in terms of the experience you had with clients, in terms of getting them to actually really track and look at their spending, what their reaction is and if that affects change.

Randy Carver: Well, it is interesting because most people think they know what they are spending. They often throw a number out and usually the number that they throw out is much lower than what it really is. So, the first thing is to get a real number. People forget about the wedding gifts they bought last year, or the furnace that blew up, or the fact that when they went to Disney, they had to spend $500 for a bottle of water.

So, the first thing is I think getting a real number of what people are spending. Then figure out where it is going. But the nice thing is that there are a lot of fairly easy ways to do that, and there are a lot of very minor corrections you can make that add up to bigger dollars. One of the things that I think is important to note is, obviously, the sooner you start, the easier it is. Having said that, even if you are retired or you are close to retirement, it is never too late to start.

I think that’s an important thing for people to realize, but obviously the sooner the better. There is never a deadline for trying to improve things because we cannot change the past, but we can certainly alter the course of the future.

Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, I mean I think there is that human tendency to think, “Well, I blew it up to this point, so I am throwing my hands up in the air. It is too late to change it now.”

Randy Carver: Exactly.

Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, Randy, is there anything we haven’t gotten to that you want to make sure listeners know?

Randy Carver: No, I think you have covered it. I think the most important thing is it’s doable. You know this is within reach of anybody, just with some basic information and it is not that complicated. I would say it is simple, but it is just not easy. It is like losing weight. You know losing weight is very simple. Taking in fewer calories than you burn off, but it is not easy because 70% of Americans are overweight.

That is because it takes knowledge of what to do. It takes the discipline to do it and the persistence to keep doing it. So, hopefully, with the book, we can at least give people the knowledge to help them feel comfortable enough to have the persistence to stick at it because it is absolutely doable by anybody.

Nikki Van Noy: Excellent. The book is Ultimate Vacation: The Definitive Guide to Living Well Today and Retiring Well Tomorrow, and Randy is there anywhere else listeners should be on the lookout for you?

Randy Carver: The easiest way to reach me is randy.carver@raymondjames.com. They can find me on Facebook and they could look for my blog just by Googling my name.