TEACHING TOOL: Creative Visualization for Retirement

Tanya Kalmanovitch, Ph.D.

How do you teach students to save for the future, when the future is far-away and frightening?

One of the biggest challenges I’ve experienced in teaching entrepreneurship classes is moving my students into action on understanding the ins and outs of planning for long-term savings. I feel I know how to teach compound interest. I illustrate it with graphs like this one to visualize the powerful life-long impact of saving and investing in their twenties. I connect it to students’ daily life with tools like David Bach’s Latte Factor that concretely illustrate how small, relatable sums of money can generate substantial wealth over enough time. But even though I do my best to make a compelling case for how and why wealth-building strategies are not only reserved for the wealthy, relatively few of my students report taking the necessary action to start to build long-term savings, like opening a ROTH-IRA.

For me, at age 52, it’s easy to focus on retirement savings because I’ll be 65 in just 13 years. But it’s unrealistic to expect my students to share the same focus—even when they may say that they know how critically important it is for their future that they establish a habit for long-term savings now. 

It’s difficult to plan far-off, abstract goals. Even when the right course of action is obvious, it can be difficult to take action if the target isn’t something we can hold in sight. Even more difficult for students coming of age at a time in a time of permacrisis, where the future seems dim at best.

This spring, I implemented a new strategy of creative visualization to make the far-off goal of retirement savings more tangible and actionable. I was inspired by this interview with NYU psychology professor Dr. Emily Balcetis, whose research shows how our visual system is linked to our behaviors, and how we can use sight to guide decision-making that helps us reach far-off goals. This exercise guides students in visualizing themselves at age 70, then building out an image of a pleasurable life. From there, the idea of transforming a bubble tea into a ROTH-IRA contribution becomes something tangible, desirable and 

For students coming of age in a time of futurelessnes, creative visualization can be a life-saving skill. Giving people the gift of ten minutes to imagine their future selves is a simple task with profound repercussions. The ability to imagine a future is an essential skill for building a better life. 

Try this technique yourself, or in your classrooms, and tell me how it’s working. Leave a comment. And if you’d like to read more about my work, please subscribe to The Rest, my newsletter about music in the post-truth world. 

Teaching Tool: Creative Visualization Exercise

Tools: A notebook and a pen 

Time: 20 minutes (10 minute reflection, followed by 10 minutes of discussion)

ASK: What thoughts do you have about retirement? Are you saving for it? If not, why not? 

EXPLAIN: It’s psychologically difficult to think about something that’s 40 years away. It’s not a target or finish line that you can easily visualize.  Creative visualization is a tool you can use to overcome limitations and challenges. By simply imagining yourself in the future, you can boost self-efficacy (your belief in your own ability to succeed), and reach big-picture goals by breaking them into smaller, more tangible, targets. 

REFLECTION: Let’s take a few minutes to jot down your thoughts about yourself at age 70. 

Think about your grandparents right now. Is there one that you physically resemble? One who’s close to your personality? Get their image in your mind; imagine them here with you. Now imagine yourself shadowing their body, and then gradually imagine yourself, like them, at age 70. (Leave 2 minutes for this image to resolve.)

Now, I’d like you to turn your attention to a good life at 70. What are you doing with your days? Where are you living? How are you spending your time? Who are you with? What will your life be like? Give yourself another 5 minutes to write down all the details that come to your mind. (Allow 5 minutes for this.)

Now write down a figure in your notebook. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being “totally confident,” how likely are you to start saving for retirement this month?


  1. What came up for you in this exercise? What surprised you? 
  2. What was different about your 70 year old self? What was the same?
  3. How likely are you to start saving for retirement now? What’s changed for you, and why?
  4. What do you know about creative visualization from your musical practice? 
  5. As musicians, you know what it is to invest time, energy, relationships to take something that’s unplayable and make it playable. What strategies do you know from music that you could apply to personal finance?

Learn More

Shankar Vedantam, “You 2.0: The MInd’s Eye” Hidden Brain Podcast, NPR, 2020. Available online.

Emily Balcetis, Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See the World, by Emily Balcetis, 2020.

Emily Balcetis and David Dunning, “See What You Want to See: Motivational Influences on Visual Perception,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2006, Vol. 91, No. 4, 612-625.