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Financial Decoder: Season 8 Episode 3

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How Can You Set Better Goals?

Many people have a vague notion of what they want to achieve financially, but it takes specificity to make those goals a reality.

Financial planning is an ongoing, iterative process. But it always starts with identifying and defining goals. Why are you saving money? When do you plan to retire? How much do you spend now? Are you saving for college? The more specificity that can be added to each goal, the more likely it is to be achieved.

No matter your stage in life, whether you are just starting out saving and investing or are well into your working years with a plan already in place, you need to evaluate your goals regularly. Our circumstances in life often change—and so should our plans.

In this episode, Mark speaks with Cindy Scott. Cindy is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional and wealth advisor with Schwab in Westlake, Texas. She shares several stories of real investors who have faced challenges when setting or defining their goals.

Subscribe to Financial Decoder for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

Financial Decoder is an original podcast from Charles Schwab.

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Click to show the transcript

MARK RIEPE: In the winter of 2020, one of the most popular series on Netflix was a Spanish show called Money Heist. It’s kind of like the Oceans movie series or The Italian Job. The heart of the story is simple: A group of criminals have a goal, and that is to print money.

To achieve that goal, they conspire to take over the Royal Mint of Spain. The mastermind of the group, known as the Professor, devises an elaborate plan to carry out the crime. The Professor has thought of every possible obstacle and figured out how to overcome it. Inevitably, though, things go wrong, and the characters have to improvise to avoid getting caught.

Plot twists are vital to this type of movie, but they appear in all sorts of fiction. They’ve also been around forever, and according to Wikipedia, there are at least 10 different types, so readers and viewers never know what’s around the corner.

If you don’t believe me, read Oedipus Rex, not only is it about 2,500 years old, but it has the mother of all plot twists.

I’m Mark Riepe, and this is Financial Decoder, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It’s a show about financial decisions and the cognitive and emotional biases that can cloud our judgment.

I’m talking about plot twists, but they don’t just exist in the realm of fiction. Our real lives are full of them.

We all have goals. In some cases, we create plans to reach those goals, but life can get in the way. We start out in one direction, but then change our destination, our path to get there, and sometimes both.

Often these changes happen because we want them, but sometimes they happen because we’re forced to make changes. Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli studied law—which he loved—at the University of Pisa and worked as a court-appointed attorney until he was 34.[1]

But he also loved music. He sang and played piano on the side and landed an agent when he was 38.[2]

Vera Wang was an elite figure skater who failed to make the 1968 U.S. Olympic team. And while she went on to become an editor at Vogue, she was passed over for the editor-in-chief position. At age 40, she decided to start designing wedding gowns. Now, she is one of the premier designers in the fashion industry, and her business is worth more than a billion dollars.[3]

Changing directions during your working years isn’t unusual. We’ve all probably seen friends and family members go through those changes. But if you think those changes stop when your prime working years are coming to end, then you’re wrong.

In this episode, I’m speaking with Cindy Scott about setting goals, but also how to react when life intervenes.

Cindy is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ with Schwab in Westlake, Texas, and has helped hundreds of people with these and other questions—guiding them in setting retirement goals and creating plans to pursue those goals and achieve them.

Cindy, some of my favorite episodes of this show are ones where I get to talk to people like yourself who spend all day, every day, working with real investors, helping them solve real problems. So I really appreciate you being here today.

CINDY SCOTT: Oh, you’re welcome, Mark. Thank you for the invitation.

MARK: The premise of this episode is that many people, they really don’t approach goal setting, especially if the goal is longer-term, with the same kind of rigor and research as they approach other decisions. Has that been your experience in working with clients?

CINDY: Yes, absolutely. When it comes to defining specific financial goals, I find that a lot of people have a vague notion of what they want to achieve, but they don’t always have the specificity needed to make their goals a reality. For example, I worked with a lady earlier this week who was very excited about creating the financial plan, but when I asked her what she most wanted to achieve financially for her retirement, she was quick to say she wanted to maintain her current standard of living. I thought that’s great. And then, of course, I asked, “Well, how much do you need monthly to maintain your standard of living?” And she had no idea. She did not know. So before we could continue with creating her plan, she had to do some homework. She had to catalog her expenses.

And this is something I encounter every single week. But from a financial planner standpoint, what I want to say is that I’m OK with that, because part of the planning process is to identify goals, and then the very next step is we define the goals. And so that means being more specific. How much … what dollar value do we need to put to that goal, or what’s the timeframe in which we have to achieve the goal?

So part of the process includes adding the rigor to the thought process so that now we have something specific that we would work towards. And what I would tell investors is don’t let that deter you from seeing … or seeking the help that you need because your planner will help you define more specific goals and put the rigor to it.

MARK: Can that goal definition process, can that really happen in one conversation, or as you, I think, implied in the previous question, it may take a couple of conversations for that really to coalesce and make sense?

CINDY: That’s right. Sometimes we can get it done in one conversation, I work with people who come to our initial meeting having already thought a great deal about the specifics of what they want to achieve. So sometimes we can get through that process in the first meeting. For most people, however, we simply start defining goals during that initial conversation, and then by the next time we meet, we make some adjustments after they’ve had some time to think more deeply about what they want to do or after they’ve had some time to do a bit of homework. And even once we get to the end of the financial plan and the investor sees what’s possible or what adjustments will be required, a lot of time we go back and make additional refinements to the goal. So what I want to stress is that the planning process is an ongoing iterative process. As things change in our lives, we make changes to our plan so that the plan reflects our current feelings, needs, wants, and wishes.

MARK: Cindy, we’ve got listeners ranging from people in their 20s to well past normal retirement age. What are some of the ways to get people thinking about their goals at their different stages of life? How does someone in their 30s approach this process compared to someone in their 50s?

CINDY: Hmm. OK. Well, the approach may be the same whether you’re 20s, 30s, or 50, but the specific goals may be different. For example, when I talk to clients in their 30s, most of them want to focus on things like getting married, or if they’re already married, they’re trying to get on the same page financially with their spouse. They’re thinking about starting a family, or thinking about how to save for college, or buy a home.

I’m thinking right now of a 26-year-old young lady I recently spoke with. She’s making good money, but she admitted that, “Cindy, I need to be more financially responsible with my money.” And I hear that same sentiment from people in their 20s and 30s all the time. They’re starting to get serious about creating the habits that will benefit them tremendously when they turn 50.

So, by contrast, people in their 50s, they’re starting to approach retirement now, and they’re thinking more in depth about things like, “Are we going to run out of money? Are we spending too much?” Some people are worried about a current healthcare issue or a future healthcare crisis, and how in the world would we pay for something like that? Some people in their 50s, they’re starting to realize that maybe this home that they’ve raised all their children in, it’s just too big for the two of them. They don’t want the maintenance or the upkeep. So they’re thinking about downsizing or even moving to a different state to be closer to friends or family, or perhaps even to a state that’s just more tax-friendly or where the cost of living is lower.

So no matter what the priority or the focus, the process is the same. We’ve got to work to identify the goals and concerns. And then we define what we want to achieve in that framework in order for us to now to have something to plan for, so … and one of the things we do is we also bring up topics that clients might not be thinking about, but that they should be thinking about. So, again, the point here is that the focus of what a 30- or 50-year-old may be wanting to talk about may be different, but our process of how we approach goal setting with them is the same.

MARK: For people, especially older individuals, upper middle-age, who have, let’s say, only a vague idea about what they want to do in retirement, what are some of the ways that you use to get them thinking about the future?

CINDY: One of the primary things I do is I take them through an exercise that’s similar to a vision board. And I get excited about this, and so do they. So normally what I do is I start off by asking, “When you think about retirement, what are the two or three things you’re most looking forward to?” Or I’ll ask, “What will constitute a life of joy, significance, and meaning when you’re no longer going to work every day?” And then in the planning tool that I use, there’s a page on there that is a vision board. It has a lot of images on there that represent the things people most want to do during retirement. For example, you know, when it comes to work some people say, “Well, I’m going to choose the one where there’s no work at all.” Others say, “Well, I want to work part-time for a few years before I completely retire.” And believe it or not, I talked to a guy the other day, he said his dad was in his 90s still working and never planning to retire, and that’s his goal, too. So never completely retire might also be something people want to do. And there are a variety of other things on that vision board—an active life, quiet life, time to travel, time with friends and family, less stress, peace of mind. And so we walk through that process and what happens is it starts to bring into focus for them what their vision is.

I worked with a couple yesterday, where the husband plans to relax by playing golf. The wife, on the other hand, wants to write a book and do speaking engagements to talk about the book. So we were able to customize their retirement vision with the images that represent specifically what they want to do during retirement. And so, again, once I showed them the vision board, and they start to dream about a life of joy and meaning, things start to come into focus.

And this happened, too, with a recently divorced man that I work with. He struggled, initially, with this part of the process. He was still very much in, I’d say, the grieving process over the loss of his relationship and the future plans … I’m sorry, the plans that he and his former spouse had. So he had to reimagine what retirement would look like for him. And as we just started to think about ideas, the floodgates really opened up for him and he started to get excited, actually, about planning his future. He’s looking for a new house on the East Coast with a basement because he realizes in retirement, he’ll just focus on his hobby. So he’s going to build a woodworking shop in his basement. He enjoys scuba diving. So once he gets his new home set up, he’ll start buying his scuba equipment so that once he retires, he won’t have those expenses.

So that’s one of the ways that if people start off with just a vague notion of what they want to do, this visioning exercise really helps to bring things into focus. And then we go from there by defining specific goals around that vision.

MARK: Cindy, we’ve all heard stories about people or families who they probably had unrealistic expectations. Their dreams, if you will, were a little bit too grandiose for their resources. But what about the other side of the spectrum? Are there people who don’t dream big enough because they think maybe they don’t have enough money so that they’ll never have enough to achieve their goals? Do you run into people like that?

CINDY: Yes. Yes, believe it or not, it happens. In fact, I’m reminded of a young newlywed couple. These folks were saving over a third of their combined salary every year, but they had no idea how much they were actually saving because they would never put anything down on paper. They had some aggressive goals, yes, but they didn’t think they had any chance of achieving them. Well, after documenting everything in their plan, they were blown away and utterly shocked to learn that not only would they have enough to fund their goals, they would have more than enough and would be in a position to spend even more money or retire sooner than they thought. Now, of course, these folks were young. They were saving a third of their income, and they had many, many years to invest, but I see this same result for a lot of people.

In fact, just a few days ago I met with a couple who had been strong savers all their working years. They were also very frugal. And their biggest concern was if the husband predeceased the wife, they were afraid that there wouldn’t be enough money for the wife to live comfortably for the remainder of her life. So when we finally got to the end of their plan, it was so far beyond what they thought was ever possible for them that initially they assumed that something was wrong in the plan because that outcome could never be their reality, but it was. So I actually had to take a minute, go back through all of our inputs in the plan. They verified that it was correct. And then I just had to let it sink in for just a moment. OK? They had never had any dreams of being in the kind of financial position they were in, and they just couldn’t believe it. And so we talked about what can they do. “Well, you can spend more money.” But these particular folks, they couldn’t even imagine what they would spend the money on because they were so accustomed to living so far below their means. But what did get them excited was the idea of being able to give more money to their church than they thought they would ever be able to. That is what really moved them. So, yes, we see that all the time.

MARK: I think that’s just a great example of why it’s important to put stuff down on paper. You know, there is no point in guessing. You just got to do the number crunching.

CINDY: That’s right.

MARK: Let’s talk for a little bit about, I guess I’ll call them incremental goals, the goals that are coming along sooner as opposed to some of these retirement-oriented goals, which can be decades in the distance. If someone has a long-term goal, how can they create smaller goals along the way?

CINDY: OK. So it’s part of our action plan. So when there’s a big goal like retirement, especially for that 26-year-old young lady I mentioned, that’s so far away until she can’t even conceive of it. But what we can do is we start off with today, and say, “OK, what is your standard of living today? Let’s make sure we can at least fund that.”  OK? And so we do the math and come up with what the number is today that she needs to be deferring into her retirement plan, perhaps into IRAs, that’s ultimately going to get her to where she wants to be 30 years down the road. And so that’s really it, is to say, “ OK, what is the next best action I can take today in order to put myself in a position to achieve that goal 25, 30 years down the road?” And that’s where we put the focus.

So we really just break it down into smaller chunks, and we can do that for any goal. It could be saving for a down payment on a home. Well, when do you want to buy the home? How much of a down payment will you need? How much can you afford? Starting to save each month right now. And then we just get them on that path and say, “Focus on that savings goal every single month.” And that’s how we’re ultimately able to achieve what can sometimes be a big kind of abstract goal that will happen far into the future.

MARK: Yeah. No, I think that’s great advice. Tons of evidence that helping people break these big topics down into smaller, more digestible pieces makes a lot of sense. It makes it easier for them to kind of achieve things and make progress.

CINDY: That’s right.

MARK: What about, though, people with multiple goals? At the end of the day, you know, we’re all being pulled in a lot of different directions. How can you help people prioritize and deal with the inevitable trade-offs that have to be made sometimes?

CINDY: Yeah.  OK. So I mentioned a couple of times now about the steps in the planning process, where we first identify the goal, and then we define the goal in terms of timeframe or dollar value. When we identify what the goals are, we place each one in a priority category, and there are three categories we use in our planning tool—needs, wants, wishes. Needs, of course, are the things that we absolutely must have, basic necessities like food, housing, transportation, healthcare costs. Wants are things that we want to be able to do, like I want to be able to travel. I want to be able to send the kids to college or pay for their wedding. And then wishes are things that would be nice to have, but the clients are willing to forgo if there simply isn’t enough money to fund all of the goals. So a wish could be something like a major purchase. I’ve seen people have a wish to purchase a boat or a beach home or cabin or some other type of vacation home. I’ve seen people also with a wish to be able to provide financial assistance to a family member, like a parent or sibling who may not have enough money of their own.

So one of the reasons we use these priority categories is so we know where to focus the saving and investing if there isn’t enough money to fund everything. We focus first on making sure that the needs will be met, and are we saving enough to meet those needs? Then we focus on the wants. And, lastly, we focus on the wishes. So that’s how we’re able to help people kind of prioritize savings and investing, in case we have some trade-offs of things we simply won’t be able to fund.

MARK: Are there times when maybe there are goals that … and maybe they fall into this wishes category that, you know, they just need to be crossed off the list, they aren’t going to happen? Or are maybe they’re even scenarios that people are worried about, but they’re just so far out there it’s just not worth planning for?

CINDY: Yes, that happens. So when we analyze the results of their plan, if the plan will support all of the spending goals, that’s wonderful. But a lot of times, there just isn’t enough money to fund everything, so we have to start reducing, and in some cases, completely eliminating goals, starting with the things in the wish column, and then if there still isn’t enough, we’ll start with those things at the bottom of the list under the want category. So we can start off by setting any goal the client would like to achieve, but they often realize that if there isn’t money to fund everything, they’ll have to forgo those wishes.

And this came up with a grandfather I work with not long ago. He really wanted to fund college for his grandchildren, but according to the results of his plan, he saw it in black and white himself that he couldn’t afford to meet his needs for his retirement and pay for college tuition for his grandchildren. It was somewhat sobering for him and he was a bit disappointed about that, but he also understood that, you know, as people always say, “The kids can borrow money for college, but I can’t borrow money for my retirement.” So he made the decision, as difficult as it was, to delete the college goals from his plan. And that’s just something some clients have to face.

In terms of things to avoid when assessing goals, there are a few things I’d like to highlight. One, be careful about doomsday scenarios like sky-high inflation. Given the current environment, we will see people respond to what’s going on right now. And I had a gentleman the other day who wanted to factor in like a 5½% inflation on his plan that’s going to span more than 30 years. Well, as you can imagine, we got to the end of that plan, and, of course, they weren’t able to fund all of their goals because the inflation was too high, almost double what we factor in for inflation.

And, also, I see some people, mostly younger people, who say, “Well, I just don’t believe there’ll be any Social Security, so I want to take that completely out of the analysis.” And if it works for their plan, great. But, you know, sometimes we have to just reset expectations about what’s practical and try to avoid these worst-case scenario planning.

Another thing that I would highlight is just if the plan shows that you’re not able to fund all of your goals, be willing to make some trade-offs. I have worked with people, and I’m thinking of a couple of retired clients I’ve spoken with recently, whose plan forecast that they will run out of money if they continue spending the way they’re currently spending. And I’m always a little bit shocked when they see that and they say, “Well, but I’m going to keep spending the way I’m spending,” especially when there are opportunities in the wants or wishes categories to pull back on some of those expenses, so that they’ll at least be able to meet their needs for life.

And so those are just a couple of things I would say. Try to avoid those situations if you can.

MARK: Cindy, we often talk about how saving and investing, it’s really not about the money per se; it’s really about what you intend to do with that money. And just from some of your anecdotes, it’s pretty clear that you’ve got a lot of clients who have already figured that out, and they have a clear sense as to who they are and how they want to deploy those resources. But what about those people who don’t have that sense? What about those people who haven’t figured out, let’s say, for retirement, how they want to be spending that lifetime of savings that they put so much effort into accumulating?

CINDY:  OK. Yeah, and so it goes back to the visioning exercise I mentioned earlier. We will just take the time to dream big and then we start to distill the dreams down into specific goals, let’s identify and prioritize and then specifically define their most important family and financial goals first. So before I talk about investing, or asset allocation, or pre-tax versus post-tax, the first thing I want to do is get a clear and a shared vision of what’s most important. Because the savings and investing, it’s there to enable the achievement of the most important family and financial goals. And, oftentimes, when I’m working with a new client, they will come to that initial conversation wanting specific advice about how to invest the money, or where, or if what they’re currently investing in is what they should be investing in. But we have to do that initial work first because I have to know what they’re trying to achieve before I can write a financial prescription for how to achieve it. So sometimes we have to spend a lot of time here getting more specific about what is it that you want this money to enable you to do, and then we go from there.

MARK: Last question, Cindy. What are your tips? What are those bottom-line tips or lessons that you really want people to remember, especially for those who maybe they’re just now thinking about goals and connecting them with their financial situation?

CINDY: Uh huh. A couple of things. One, try to keep it simple. Financial planning is not as complicated—it’s not as hard—as most people worry about. So I would suggest writing down two or three things that are most important to that individual or that family. And then after that, just prioritize what’s the one thing I can do now to make sure I’m going to be on a path to achieve that goal? So don’t make it complicated. Just keep it simple.

The second thing I would recommend is work with a planner. Find a financial planner that you trust, maybe from referrals, from a friend or family or colleague, because that planner can help educate and guide clients through the process of defining the specific goals, and, ultimately, creating a plan that will highlight the action steps they need to take to achieve those goals. Here at Schwab, of course, we have something for everyone. We have processes for the do-it-yourselfer who wants to start their own financial plan, all the way to planners and programs that where a client can have their own Certified Financial Planner guiding them through that process, and giving them recommendation and advice on how to achieve it. So, find somebody to help you.

And, lastly, just be prepared for potential trade-offs. Also, be prepared to be pleasantly surprised, OK, because it can go either way and we’ll certainly point that out.

MARK: Cindy Scott, I really appreciate your time today. Thank you.

CINDY: Oh, you’re welcome. Thanks for having me. This has been great.

MARK: Most people in their saving and investing years have retirement as a primary goal.

And they’re understandably concerned about the financial aspects of it.

In a minute I’ll discuss those, but there’s a lot more to visualizing your life in retirement beyond just the money. Think about it: You’ll have much more free time in retirement than you had during your working life.

That may sound great on the surface, but replacing 40 hours a week is a lot of time, and believe it or not, it can be a real challenge. Yes, you can spend time playing golf, traveling, or visiting family. But is that enough to make your retirement fulfilling?

At a job, we interact with others, solve problems, and perhaps have some time alone while commuting. What aspects of your work life do you want to take into retirement? What are your passions? What will give your retired life purpose? Make sure you start thinking about the time allocation part first because that will make the financial part easier.

Here are some steps to follow.

Step one is to paint a picture of your goal and be specific about it. Goal achievement is tough because there are all sorts of cognitive and emotional roadblocks that we put in our own way.

Specificity matters because if a goal is clear and vivid, it’s easier to create a plan to achieve it. Specificity is important to any goal you’re setting, but here are some sample questions for a retirement goal to give you a flavor for the process.

At what age do you plan to retire?

How much money do you plan on spending? Use a budget planner to figure out how much money you’ll need each month for your expenses.

How long will you be retired? A good estimate for a healthy person is until you’re 95 years old.

Specificity also matters because it helps you see the pieces that need to go together to make your goal a reality.

Once you see those component parts, you can break the goal into smaller sub goals that will seem less daunting.

By doing that you can overcome another psychological barrier to goal achievement and that is the fact that many goals just seem too big, and we lose our motivation.

Step two is to see if you’re on track to reach your goals. Tracking is vital because it helps to hold yourself accountable, and it can also be motivating to see the progress that you’re making.

This is especially true if you’ve broken down the goal into discrete pieces or sub-goals. Using a retirement goal as an example, it will help if you figure out how much you need to save each month for retirement and reward yourself when you’ve actually done it. The reward part is important because celebrating small milestones along the way helps to maintain motivation.

Step three is to decide how you’ll save and invest. This is often a combination of different accounts, such as an employer-sponsored account like a 401(k), a health savings account, a Roth IRA, and a brokerage account.

One warning with this part. We know that some people suffer from a decision-making bias known as choice overload.

We see so many choices, we just shut down because analysis paralysis impedes our ability to make a decision. This is the type of decision where an advisor can help.

Step four is to check and update your plan as your situation changes. You should do this at least once a year, and more often if you experience a major life event, such as a marriage, divorce, death of a loved one, or job change.

This step seems obvious, but again we know from many studies that planning can seem like hard work. Once people go through it, they want to set it and forget it.

But think back to the introduction and all of those plot twists, or think back to some of the examples Cindy gave. Real life plot twists happen. We can ignore them, and that might feel good in the moment, but it doesn’t make the problem created by the plot twist go away.

The only way to do that is to identify what’s changed and create a plan to address it.

All these steps are at schwab.com. Just search for “how to create your personal retirement plan.” We have several more retirement resources available there as well. Click on the Insights tab and check out our Knowledge Center.

And of course, your financial advisor is a valuable source of information as well—they can help you deal with plot twists that come your way as you head to a fulfilling retirement.

To learn more about creating a financial plan to reach your goals, check out Schwab.com/plan.

If you’re a client, you can log in there to get your complimentary plan.

And if you don’t have someone you can ask for advice about your plan, you can always call us and talk to a professional. We’re at 1-877-279-4476.

Thanks for listening.

If you’ve enjoyed the show, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts.

You can also follow us for free in your favorite podcasting app.

You can also follow me on Twitter @MarkRiepe. M-A-R-K-R-I-E-P-E.

For important disclosures, see the show notes and Schwab.com/FinancialDecoder.

Important Disclosures

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.

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