Memo To Financial Services Firms: Enough With The Silly Survey Questions Already

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By Walter Updegrave, RealDealRetirement @RealDealRetire

Ideally, surveying people about their personal finances and attitudes toward money can be an effective way to glean insights that might ultimately help us make better decisions in everything from saving, spending and investing to creating strategies will lead to a more financially secure and enjoyable retirement. But if that’s the case, why do so many financial services firms ask so many inane questions in their surveys?

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t get a press release about some poll or survey that contains one or more harebrained factoids, the purpose of which seems to be more titillation than illumination. For example, a recent email touting results from Capital One’s Bonus and Tax Survey noted that 71% of the people polled said that “they would rather get less than expected on their tax refund than hand over their social media passwords to their ex,” while 43% said “they would be willing to give up caffeine for a year for a bigger bonus.” Wow, I never realized we had those choices. But apparently there are even more options, as 64% also said they would rather get a smaller-than-expected bonus than have their parents set them up on a blind date.

Not to pick on Capital One. This sort of silliness is rampant. The Wallet Hub 2016 Tax Survey explained that “for a tax-free future,” 27% of those surveyed would be willing to get an IRS tattoo (thankfully, Wallet Hub didn’t ask where) and 11% would be willing to clean Chipotle bathrooms. (I assume this potty reference is to the E. coli problems at several Chipotle outlets last year.)

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But if you think those findings are out of left field, get this: the Wallet Hub survey also asked whom we’d most like to punch. That’s right, punch. The connection between slugging someone and taxes isn’t clear to me, but I think the idea was to gauge whom we dislike even more than the IRS. Whatever the rationale (or lack of it), Donald Trump was the runaway winner (or loser, depending on your point of view) with 54% saying they’d like to sock him in the kisser (although 22% also said they liked The Donald more than the IRS).

Apparently, any time you can work a celebrity or well-known person into a survey, that’s a plus, even if the connection is tangential at best. For example, a study released last year by the Insured Retirement Institute and the Center for Generational Kinetics (I confess I have no idea what the phrase generational kinetics means) asked baby boomers, Generation Xers and Millennials which celebrity they would pick as their financial advisor. Warren Buffett was the top choice, Oprah came in second and Jessica Alba, LeBron James and Tony Robbins were also-rans. Gee, I didn’t even know these people were accepting advisory clients.

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But whether you could actually get any of these celebs (or, in the case of Tony Robbins, quasi-celeb) to manage your money even if you wanted to isn’t the point. The point of asking this question is…well, actually, I don’t see a point, other than to throw out some headline bait to the personal finance press.

And there there are the old standbys. Many surveys have reported that people feel they are more likely to get struck by lightning than collect their Social Security benefit. And the fear of running through your nest egg too soon is always good for an eye-grabbing tidbit. The 2014 Wells Fargo Middle-Class Retirement Study claimed that “22% of the middle class say they would rather ‘die early’ than not have enough money to live comfortably in retirement.”

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Seriously? I find it hard to believe that any retiree who’s told that he has to scale back his lifestyle in order to avoid running out of money would respond by saying something like, “Nah, I think I’ll just keep spending the way I am and have someone do away with me when my money runs out.” Who comes up with these questions?

Well, since everyone else is tossing around surveys, I might as well join the crowd. In fact, I’ve just completed my own highly scientific survey of one—i.e., me—and here are the fascinating results: 100% of those surveyed believe that too many questions in financial surveys are just plain dumb and are asked mainly to lure all-too-complicit journalists into mentioning the survey because it contains a quirky, attention-getting (but ultimately meaningless) factoid.

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What’s more, everyone in my survey (again, just me) thinks that if financial services firms really want to help their clients and would-be clients improve their financial prospects, they should take the money they plow into dubious surveys and spend it to expand their educational materials and fund more research into key issues like how to get people to save and invest better, or use it to develop better online tools and calculators that can help people assess whether they’re on track to a secure post-career life and how much they can safely spend in retirement.

Oh, one last thing. You should know that my survey also found that I would rather hand over my social media passwords to Jessica Alba while Warren Buffett is giving me an IRS tattoo than be struck by lightning as I’m scrubbing toilets in Chipotle bathrooms.     (3/28/16)

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.comIf you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at You can tweet Walter at @RealDealRetire.

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