Matt Griffin likes to talk in analogies — as if he's a football coach and his clients, the team owners. The goal, he says, is they'll trust him to make the plays that bring the big win for their retirement-even if that means they're coming from behind with few assets to start, and just 10 to 15 years before they hope to retire.

"As the owner, you discuss risk with me, and we'll talk about how we can win the game conservatively or moderately, but it's up to me to pick the players," says the financial consultant and program manager at Family Trust Federal Credit Union in Rock Hill, S.C. (LPL is the third-party marketer.)

That style has worked with even his toughest clients, from those whose advisors took their money-he's met a surprising number of people who have experienced this problem-to those who have lost their retirement savings when an employer restructured.

Take the airline pilot who came to Griffin after his airline declared bankruptcy and his pension dropped from about $15,000 per month to $5,000. He also had a $250,000 portfolio that collapsed to around $100,000 because of investments in Internet companies.

His goal of retiring in 10 years? Not exactly heading into clear skies. But Griffin offered him two flight plans — either sacrifice his lifestyle now and sock more funds away, or work longer, although he would have to change industries because of mandatory retirement ages for pilots.

The client and his wife chose the former option, selling their home and downsizing to an apartment. They also canceled their country club membership.

Griffin then took the remaining assets, plus new deposits the pilot started saving, and invested them conservatively, concerned that his client wouldn't be able to weather another downturn.

"Clearly, everything had to be adjusted, he was essentially starting over," Griffin added in a follow-up email message.

Today, many advisors are working with investors who have endured the last several years putting off retirement planning because of the economy, or because they watched their life savings and dreams dissipate. Perhaps a family business closed. Or a 401(k) hit hard by the downturn made them pull the covers over their heads. Or retirement plans got postponed until children were out of college. Or clients hit 50 and found themselves looking for work again.

These are scenarios that experts say are unique to the modern day as jobs were generally steadier in previous generations.

Labor statistics show that 50 year-old workers in a private sector job in 1983 could count on having that job until retirement, says Dr. Steven Sass, the program director of the Financial Security Project, an initiative of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

Indeed, about 70% of people who were employed in the private sector when they were 58-62-years-old, in 1983, were at the same job they had held at the age of 50. Just 25% held a new job and 5% were working part-time. Sass says today those numbers are closer to 50/50 — that is, half of 60-year-olds are likely to be working for a new employer, if they can actually find one.

Advisors say they are hearing from more prospective clients in this category: People who are hoping to learn how they can get ready to retire and discovering that in many cases it's going to be a rough road.

The process includes sitting down with them and looking at how to maximize options from Social Security to 401(k)s, of course, and then looking at investment vehicles from Roths to variable annuities, mutual funds to ETFs. But sometimes it also means helping clients shift the way they think about the future they had envisioned when they thought about those so-called golden years.


What's Your Pain Threshold?

To Griffin, understanding where a client's pain point is also helps him determine how aggressively he can position a portfolio to try and make up for lost time — and potentially bring retirement a little closer.

He finds most clients don't understand what he means when he explains a portfolio could be down 20%.

So again, he brings out the analogies: A $100,000 account dropping to $80,000 means losing a new Honda Accord. Dropping 70%? That's a Volvo.

He looks for non-verbal clues to read his client's feelings. Knees bouncing up and down are a classic sign of discomfort. He waits until they get to the point where they can't tolerate the loss anymore (a Volvo maybe, but not a Mercedes), and explains his priority is to make sure they never get to that pain level.

But that doesn't mean he believes in going full throttle into the most aggressive strategies. He likes ETFs, as they give him the ability to hedge. And Griffin always makes sure there are some funds that are liquid — easy to get to should a client need access quickly in an emergency.

"It's entirely feasible they could be two, three or five years in and just have to get some money out," he says. "Especially someone starting over."

Robin Byford also believes in safety nets, particularly when working with clients who are starting later in the game and can't start over, or those with an asset base they cannot afford to lose.

Byford, an advisor at Stillwater National Bank in Oklahoma City (Raymond James is the third-party marketer), says she looks for strategies that have market-based upside, but with safer options such as equity-based annuities and structured products.

"You're going to lop off a little bit from the top," Byford says. "But hopefully you're going to lop more off from the bottom."


Don't Cash Social Security Yet

One area all advisors spend significant time reviewing for late starters is Social Security. But questions abound: Could funds dry up? Could benefits shrink? Could the official retirement age grow?

Most reps believe that some form of Social Security will be present for those retiring within the next 10 years or so, and they usually start with taking a look at how this benefit could impact retirement income — even for clients who say they don't want to depend on it in case it disappears.

A primary question is whether clients can afford to wait and start taking benefits at a later age in order to maximize their monthly payment. And for good reason. The difference between taking a benefit at age 67 and age 70 is sizable, with payments increasing about 7% a year. With bonds now paying about 1%, waiting to take Social Security is likely a better bet, say some advisors.

"A lot of people are looking at Social Security," says Joel Redmond, senior financial planner and vice president at the Syracuse, N.Y.-based Key Private Bank. "A lot want to create streams of income that don't vary.…and adjust for inflation."

One technique Redmond favors with Social Security is called File and Suspend, where a higher-earning spouse suspends his benefit when he reaches full retirement age for Social Security.

Then the lower-earning spouse can file for benefits, receive half of what the higher earner would get, while that benefit is maximized until the higher earner reaches age 70.

"For very affluent people it's superfluous," he says. "But since the 2008 market it's been superfluous to a lot [fewer] people."

Sass believes that while advisors should look for ways to find extra funds to invest for their clients, they shouldn't ignore old-fashioned budgeting, particularly those who are close to retirement age.

By reducing expenses, they're also reducing the income they'll need when they retire. Downsizing to find extra income to invest while still working also helps investors adjust their standard of living — and what they'll likely feel they need when they finally make the switch to retirement in 10 to 15 years.

Sass says that today's generation harms itself not only by neglecting to save for retirement but by spending more and increasing its standard of living, creating what he calls a "double-whammy."

If they could cut expenses by even $1,000 a year, within 10 years they would have saved $10,000, giving them perhaps $500 a year in income, he says. But more important is that $1,000 cut they've made- giving them an actual net gain of $1,500 a year. "Cutting spending is the same as saving more and has twice the net effect on retirement preparations than saving more money," he says.

Alexandra Wlassowsky's team with Bank of America understands this well. A regional sales manager in San Francisco for Merrill Edge, Wlassowsky recalls one client, a 57-year-old woman in Silicon Valley who had $150,000 in a 401(k) and another $50,000 in savings, who wanted to retire in nine years with a $50,000 annual income. That wasn't likely to happen.

So a team started to look for places the client could cut costs- Wlassowsky manages about 25 advisors-including her mortgage payment and other expenses. They cut her $200 a month gym membership, and a $300 monthly cell phone payment, and found enough to add $22,500 a year to her 401(k) — an enormous difference but also a huge reduction in what she would need later. "She felt it was more important for her now to budget and push her retirement to age 70 to allow for the $50,000 a year lifestyle," says Wlassowsky.

Something Steady, Please

For those who may not have the time to grow assets large enough to create a sizable income stream, but do have access to a small chunk of money or have inherited some funds, variable annuities can play a role in creating income for retirement years, say advisors.

Jack Butler, who spent 28 years with the Social Security Administration before becoming a financial advisor, always recommends that clients look first to see how to maximize that government benefit, and then fully fund an existing 401(k) before he'll consider other investments. But one of his favorites is variable annuities. (Editor's Note: Butler was profiled in last month's issue where he talked in depth on retirement issues.)

He understands that some clients are still squeamish after the market's downturn in 2008 and are looking for guarantees.

To Butler, variable annuities offer a tax-deferred option and allow him to choose from a wider variety of investment professionals, rather than just the one tied to a particular mutual fund.

"With variable annuities you also at least get to guarantee your principal, says Butler, an advisor at the Dubuque Bank & Trust in Iowa (LPL is the third-party marketer).

"The dollars you put in are what you get back whether to you or to heirs when you die. With a mutual fund, if you put in $40,000 and the value goes down to $30,000 that's what your heirs get."

Butler agrees that those who are starting late with few assets are not the ones who likely will have a large lump sum to invest in this kind of product. Yet they may potentially inherit money when a parent dies, and in that scenario, he will — after making sure all other areas are funded — consider a variable annuity for a late-to-the-game investor.

Punch The Clock a Bit Longer

Many times clients just need to stay in the workforce longer.

It's not an answer many are anxious to hear. After all, the promise of retirement is what most investors set their sights on when they start saving. But sometimes, working longer is the only answer.

Daniel Feldstein, a senior financial advisor with BMO Harris Financial Advisors in Barrington, Ill., had a client and his wife who started working with him in their late forties, about two years ago.

They had a fairly successful construction business, but after 2008, the company folded.

They had planned on retiring from the business and had reinvested their own savings in the company. But when it closed, they had nothing left for their retirement.

With the husband getting a new job in sales, Feldstein had him start maxing out his 401(k), which left about $400 a month that Feldstein could dollar-cost average into growth mutual funds. In the clients' case, he is investing fairly aggressively — but has also helped his clients understand that the husband will likely be working at least into his mid-sixties, later than the couple had originally hoped.

So, too, a couple who came to him with about $50,000 in a 401(k) and an IRA, who had hoped to retire in 12 years when the husband turned 66. Feldstein showed them their shortfall — even including Social Security and Medicare in their plan — explaining that they'd likely have to work longer as well, or at least part-time. "It's challenging when you have people who come to you in their fifties and want to retire in 10 years," he says.

To be sure, there are always the prospects who may not like what an advisor has to say and decide to take their business elsewhere.

While reps have a duty to honestly show investors what their options are — and what the results of their savings may yield them — some investors may not be looking for that level of honesty.

They may just be looking for a yes, as Stillwater National Bank's Byford discovered after a prospect came to her with a marginal amount of money saved, and asking for help in preparing to retire.

"We told him that it would be best if he kept on working for another year just to more solidify what he had and be a little more golden," she says. "He went to another advisor who told him, 'Yeah he could make that work,' I think if you're going to work with a client and you're really trying to advise them, make sure that they understand that they can retire, but it's probably not the best idea."