How to Seek Help and Advice

The key is asking clear and direct questions.

I believe that planning for retirement requires about 75 percent common sense, 20 percent luck and only 5 percent skill. But one of the most important retirement planning skills is the ability to ask clear and direct questions.

This may seem like it falls under the category of common sense, but there are actually techniques you can learn to improve your understanding of the information you’re seeking. It’s also important that the person to whom you’re asking questions has the skill of listening and making sure they understand what you’re looking for before they begin to provide a response.

This is something I constantly strive to improve on when I meet federal employees in person or respond to written questions. On many occasions, employees have told me that their agency retirement specialist is not helpful or not knowledgeable. In some of these cases, I’ve noticed that the expertise is there, but the problem is with how the information is solicited.

Instead of asking “What should I do?” it’s better to ask “What happens if I do this and what doesn’t happen if I do that?” The first approach seeks an opinion and the second asks for facts so you can draw your own conclusions.

If you don’t understand the response to your question, ask it another way or ask for a reference to a resource you can use to confirm what you heard.

Also, don’t ask technical questions to people lacking the expertise to answer them. For example:

  • If you’re asking a financial planning question, ask a certified financial adviser, or at least someone who is knowledgeable about managing money. For example, if you want to know if providing a survivor annuity is better than buying more life insurance, a federal retirement benefits specialist can show you the cost and value of the survivor annuity decision and also point out that there are other things to consider when making this election. A financial adviser should be able to point out the advantages and disadvantages of choosing between the government benefit and life insurance.
  • If you’re currently employed or only recently retired, then questions about your retirement should be addressed to your agency’s human resources office, not the Office of Personnel Management. Be sure to keep a contact point at your agency’s HR office and payroll department.
  • If you need help applying for Social Security retirement or figuring out the value of your benefits, go to the Social Security Administration website rather than your agency HR specialist.
  • If you need to explore your Thrift Savings Plan withdrawal options or if you have questions about the processing of your withdrawal request, check out the information on the TSP website or call the Thriftline for assistance.

Be clear and concise. If you write an email with one or two short and to-the-point questions, you’ll stand a better chance of getting a quick and clear response.

Include documentation when possible. If you’re asking about a withholding from your pay or a factor on your retirement estimate, it’s best if you can show your leave and earnings statement or your retirement estimate.

These techniques will make it easier and more efficient to get and process the information you need to optimize the retirement planning process.