My inbox is bombarded daily with pitches from retirement planners who claim to hold the secret to my "dream retirement." They all basically regurgitate the same message: Spend less, save more, and be sure and give them your money to invest because they know better than all the other guys who are trying to sell you the same thing.
Here's the problem I have with them: They ignore the elephant in the room, which is, it's too late for most boomers to join their party. Spending less and saving more -- if even possible -- won't close the gap between what we have and what we will likely need. And investing our paltry savings (just 40 percent of us even have $100,000 in the bank marked "this has to last me for the rest of my life") in anything that carries even a slight risk feels akin to bellying up to a craps table to me.
What I don't understand is why everyone isn't talking about the crazy awfulness that awaits us -- and by us I mean the vast majority of people who are woefully unprepared for retirement. And I don't mean the glorious kind of retirement you see in the pretty pictures, where people walk hand-in-hand with a silver fox along a magnificent beach and clank wine glasses at sunset on the sailboat.
No, I mean the kind of retirement where you have a roof over your head, food on your table, and can afford the insurance to keep driving your car. It's a no-frills retirement, as my husband likes to call it, the kind where a single small health issue can cost you the roof over your head. Literally.
Retirement planners used to talk about the "three-legged stool of retirement income -- Social Security, traditional company pensions, and personal savings." Nowadays, many of us are sitting on legless stools. We talk about Social Security with our fingers crossed for its sustained health; traditional pensions were long ago replaced by contributory plans such as 401(k)s; and our personal savings were gobbled up by the recession. The 2013 Retirement Confidence Survey conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 60 percent of us have less than $100,000 in retirement savings.
Before anyone goes saying that our high-living ways got us in this predicament, let's not forget what happened to older workers in the recession: We got body slammed against the brick wall big time. We lost our jobs, watched our homes devalue (and in some cases, lost those too), and saw our pension and stock portfolios turn to dust. While all generations took a hit in the recession, it is the boomers who have the least amount of time left to recoup what they lost.
Couple this with the fact that our kids haven't been faring much better and are leaning on us for support. One-in-five of our adult children have moved back home and 60 percent of young adults are still getting financial aid from their parents.
A generation ago, only 1-in-10 young adults moved back home and most managed to support themselves by finding a job after that college diploma opened some doors. Not so, anymore. Today's young adults graduated college just as the financial system crashed and the housing bubble burst. And with the dubious distinction of carrying the highest debt burden of any graduating class in history, suddenly their childhood bedrooms start looking mighty appealing.
So pray tell how do we "spend less?" And without spending less, it's pretty darn near impossible to "save more."
I'm 64 and I can assure you that I spend 25 hours a day thinking of little else but my "dream retirement." (OK, sometimes I think about how this one little pill my husband takes every day must be made of gold because it costs so damn much and isn't covered by our plan's formulary.) But mostly, I think about what my retirement will look like. And that invariably leads to this thought: Thank you Lord for allowing me to keep my job, unlike the thousands of my peers who aren't fortunate enough to just have to worry about the future but also must worry about how they are paying next month's rent.
As I said, retirement worries may just be a luxury we didn't fully appreciate.
Americans spend an average of 20 years in retirement. If you're not saving, it's time to start. Begin small if you have to, and try to increase the amount you save each month. The sooner you start putting funds aside, the more time your money has to grow.
Experts estimate that you will need about 70 percent of your preretirement income -- for lower earners, the figure is 90 percent or more -- to maintain your current standard of living when you stop working. Use this calculator to come up with a ballpark estimate. Research shows that people who try to estimate their needs in advance ultimately save more for retirement.
If your employer offers a retirement savings plan, such as a 401(k) plan, sign up and contribute as much as you can. Your company may kick in a match, and deductions can be automatically taken from your paycheck. Over time, compound interest and tax deferrals can make a big difference in the amount you accumulate. Make sure your plan isn't a lemon by searching the website Brightscope.com. If it falls short, ask the management to do something about it.
How you save can be as important as how much you save. Inflation and the type of investments you make play important roles in how much you'll have saved at retirement. Know how your savings or pension plan is invested. Learn about your plan's investment options and ask questions. Put your savings in different types of investments. By diversifying this way, you are more likely to reduce risk and improve return. Your investment mix may change over time depending on a number of factors such as your age, goals, and financial circumstances. Financial security and knowledge go hand in hand.
If you withdraw your retirement savings now, you'll lose principal and interest; you might lose tax benefits or have to pay withdrawal penalties. If you change jobs, leave your savings invested in that employer's retirement plan. Or roll them over to an IRA or your new employer's plan.
The cost of your investments makes a big difference. Index funds are a good option for reducing costs. The Labor Department provides this example: Assume that you are an employee with 35 years until retirement and with a 401(k) account balance of $25,000. If the returns on investment for your account for the next 35 years average 7 percent and the fees and expenses reduce this by 0.5 percent, your account balance will grow to $227,000 at retirement, even with no further contributions. If the fees and expenses are 1.5 percent, however, your account balance will rise to only $163,000. The 1 percent difference in fees and expenses would reduce your account balance at retirement by 28 percent.
You can put as much as $5,000 a year into an individual retirement account (or IRA). Those 50 or older can contribute even more. You can also start with much less. IRAs also provide tax advantages. When you open an IRA, you have two options: a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. The tax treatment of your contributions and withdrawals will depend on the option chosen. You can set it up so that an amount is automatically deducted from your checking or savings account and deposited in the IRA.
Social Security pays benefits that are on average equal to about 40 percent of what you earned before retirement. You should receive a statement each year that gives you an estimate of how much your benefit will be and when you can receive it. For more information, visit the Social Security Administration's website or call (800)772-1213.
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