Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Without proper guidance, individual investors often fail to identify as many as half of the goals that they later recognise to be central to their plans, a Morningstar study has found.

And, if and when you have a sound financial plan in place, you may be sabotaging your ability to achieve your goals, according to top financial planners in SA.

Goals-based financial planning is considered best practice but when your financial adviser asks you what your financial goals are, your on-the-spot statements might not represent the goals that are truly important to you, say Morningstar behavioural insights team members Ray Sin, Ryan Murphy and Samantha Lamas.

These blind spots can stem from behavioural biases we all share and biases can wreak havoc on your best-laid, goals-based plans, a research paper by the Morningstar behavioural insights team members shows.

The Morningstar researchers conducted an experiment to see if a simple behavioural nudge - in the form of a master list of common goals - could help investors better identify what was important to them.

Participants were asked to list and rank their top three financial goals. The reported goals were added in random order to a master list of common financial goals. After viewing the combined list, participants were asked to rank all the financial goals in order of importance.

The researchers say on average 26% of participants changed their top goal after seeing the master list.

Only 26% of participants retained all of their top three initial financial goals. This highlights a flaw in the traditional goal-setting approach used by financial professionals, the Morningstar researchers say.

About 27% of participants changed their top goal to make it more specific. For instance, investors who had previously listed "grow wealth" as a goal replaced it with an aim such as "achieve financial security".

About half of the participants who changed their top goal settled on outcomes that involved emotional security, such as "to feel secure about my finances now" and "not to be a financial burden to my family as I grow older".

But even when you have your financial plan in place, there are many behaviours that could make you your own worst enemy.

Gerda van der Linde, a director at the
Institute of Behavioural Finance SA, says our desire for instant gratification and focus on the short-term performance of our investments often derail our financial plans.

The desire for instant gratification may inadvertently be taught by well-intentioned parents. Children who grow up getting everything they want find it difficult to deny themselves something in adulthood. They find saving and investing difficult because the fruits of these efforts are not available immediately.

Another stumbling block to achieving your goals, she says, is chasing past performance, or being influenced by recent experiences (recency bias) and things that come readily to mind (availability bias). This happens when you focus on the daily or even monthly performance of your investments; you should keep your eye on your end goal.

If you have a good financial planner and a sound financial plan, and your investment managers stick to their philosophy and deliver returns in the top quartile in performance tables, there should be no reason to even consider switching your investments, says Van der Linde.

She says a recent US study published in the Journal of Financial Planning found that you can be more sure that you will stick to your financial goals if you define them very specifically, picture them and give them a specific time frame. The study suggests you create visual images of your goals and look at them often.

It also helps if you automate your savings by signing a monthly debit order the moment you make the decision to start saving.

Nigel Willmott, a certified financial planner at Momentum Consult Clearwater, identifies high levels of household debt and failing to manage your money through the use of a household budget as the two biggest reasons South Africans fail to meet their financial goals.

We all need to make the mindset shift and take our money more seriously by taking ownership for our financial choices and behaviour, he says.

David Kop, executive director: relevance at the Financial Planning Institute, says you should never underestimate the role of your financial adviser in assisting you to determine your goals and drafting a road map to get you to them.

Your financial adviser can, among other things, help you to manage your money and determine your investment objectives and how to achieve them.

Barry O'Mahony, the founder of Veritas Wealth and a former winner of the Financial Planning Institute of Southern Africa's
Financial Planner of the Year award, says setting goals could alter the way you save.

O'Mahony says the beauty of a goal is that it creates a vision in your mind, which is critical for imagining your future and driving the change in your behaviour that could give you 20 times more savings.