An Innovative Way to ‘Face’ Retirement


Next to the aged photos are messages about how much the cost of living will increase by the time you reach a given age, and the expected prices for milk, bread, gas, utilities and other consumer items you are likely to need. In the bottom right-hand corner, Bank of America makes its pitch about saving in its Merrill Edge IRA for retirement.

But you aren’t required to hand over any personal information or even your email address to use the tool. “Our goal is to engage those 18 to 34 who have not yet started thinking about retirement and get them engaged as soon as possible,” says Alok Prasad, head of Merrill Edge. “We tried to use this aging tool to kind of bring a little bit of humor and fun into a tough topic and get individuals thinking about their future selves.”

Merrill Edge says more than 250,000 people used the face retirement app to create aged photos of themselves in the month after it launched. And about 10% of those users shared their aged photo on Facebook with their friends.

When April Kessler, 42, a business librarian in Austin, Texas, first tried the face retirement tool, she invited her colleagues into her office to look at it. “We all joked it was going to make us save for plastic surgery,” she says. “I decided I need a little more sleep and possibly I need to start moisturizing more.”

But she also went back to look at the aged photo again later. “It’s a gimmick, for sure, but it does make you think about it,” she says. “It is a reminder that you are going to get older and you do have to plan for the future.”

Some experts say the tool is not likely to have an immediate impact on retirement savings, but the experience of seeing your future self could be recalled later when you make 401k or IRA decisions.

“It’s not like somebody goes on there and then happens to read one of their statistics about what you will need and calls their bank the same day,” says Kit Yarrow, a consumer research psychologist at Golden Gate University and co-author of “Gen BuY: How Tweens, Teens, and Twenty-Somethings Are Revolutionizing Retail” who is not affiliated with the tool. “It may not inspire someone to pick up the phone right away, but I think it builds a relationship.”

And if you begin to think of yourself as someone who will grow old one day, it could change your behavior at a key moment. “It’s hard to image that you are ever going to get there when you are 18,” says Yarrow. “Getting someone to visualize and imagine themselves in that position is a major benefit of this campaign.”

The face retirement tool is based on a series of experiments, conducted at Stanford University and published in the Journal of Marketing Research in 2011, that found that people who view age-progressed photos of themselves often consider allocating more money to retirement accounts.

For example, in one of the studies, 50 people were shown an aged or current picture of themselves and then asked to allocate a hypothetical $1,000 among four choices: a checking account, a fun and extravagant occasion, a retirement fund, or buying something nice for someone special. Participants who viewed the aged photo said they would put significantly more in the retirement account ($172) then those who viewed a current photo ($80).

How effective the tool is at getting you to increase your retirement contributions may depend on your attitude when you use it. “If they see it via Facebook, I’m not sure someone is going to change their 401k contributions,” says Hal Hershfield, an assistant professor in the marketing department at New York University’s Stern School of Business and co-author of the original marketing research. “If, on the other hand, they are actually in the mindset of trying to get more information about retirement, I think this could have a measurable impact on the types of decisions that they make.”

Erica Agran, 41, of Chicago, shared a photo of herself at age 57 produced by the face retirement app on her blog, Erica Finds. “It got me interested and thinking about my retirement number and when I can retire,” says Agran, who already maxes out her 401k. “I think the fact that they went out so far into the future when you are 107 years old makes it more like a novelty and something harder to take seriously.”

Agran isn’t convinced that the app produced a realistic representation of what she will look like in old age. “It seems to sag your face a lot, but your hair doesn’t change,” she says. “My mom doesn’t look like that, so I’m pretty sure I won’t either.”

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