12/22/2014 12:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Betty White Asks Are You Naughty or Nice?


During a recent conversation with my friend Betty White, we discussed how much we both have to be thankful for this year, but Betty also asked if Santa would have me on his "Naughty" or "Nice" list. I told her I was definitely "Nice," and she demurred when I asked her the same question. But it got me thinking. This year has been full of contradictions for Americans saving for retirement. With a nod to Betty's question and to the bearded guy up north, I have compiled my own naughty and nice list for 2014.

Naughty: Savings rate of most Americans. A survey from Wells-Fargo earlier this year drew gasps from many as it stated that 34 percent of middle class Americans are not currently contributing anything to a retirement plan. Nineteen percent of all respondents have no retirement savings. For those of us who have been following retirement savings trends for a while, this was not a shock. My company surveyed seniors three years ago, and we found that 55 percent said they would have to work past age 65. We remain a country that is ill-prepared for retirement, and many Americans believe they will never be able to retire.

Nice: We have time. Even though many baby boomers reach retirement age each day, most Americans still have time to salvage their retirement plans. New options along with the benefit of time can help many begin or rebuild their retirement savings. Boomers and seniors may need to drastically rethink how they plan to pay for retirement, but there are tactics that can help them. More on this later.

Naughty: Many costs of living are outpacing wages. While the overall economy is improving, many of the core costs of living are still too high for most Americans. Costs of groceries, healthcare, housing and energy (except until recently oil prices, hurray) have been rising at rates that overwhelm many Americans. A survey from Pew Research says the majority of us are struggling to keep up in some way. For example, 24 percent had trouble finding or paying for adequate medical care, 20 percent struggled to cover their rent or mortgage payment and 20 percent had a run-in with a collection agency.

Nice: Many economic indicators are rising fast. Despite some gloom on the ground, the economy in the big picture is improving. Stock markets are at all-time highs, the housing market appears on the road to recovery and consumer confidence, while still not great, is improving. What this means is that, at least on paper, many of us are feeling better about the overall outlook. The value of our home is probably higher than it was a year ago, with variances by market. Our stock portfolio is likely in much better shape, particularly if you invested in index funds with a "set it and forget it" mentality. And the overall value of many businesses improved, because if you survived the Great Recession, there was only one way to go -- up.

Naughty: Old savings wisdom is not working. Concern about America's retirement crisis is not new. The statistics about savings rates have been alarming for a while. For years, those offering advice to seniors and boomers often only had one solution: Save more. I have argued at length that this is an overly simplistic solution to an increasingly complicated problem. Of course, we should all try to cut our expenses and save more, but as the statistics bear out, many people can't make ends meet. How in the world do you save more if you are struggling to make your mortgage payment? The old advice doesn't work.

Nice: Options exist to catch up. Given the improvement in the economy (even if you think it is just on paper,) many Americans have options. If you are heavily invested in the stock market, it may be time to rebalance your portfolio. You may also look to other ways to diversify such as real estate or precious metals. If most of your wealth is tied-up in your home and you plan on selling within the next few years, it would be foolish not to look at selling now. Mortgage rates remain relatively low, which is good for potential buyers, and rising confidence is on your side. For business owners, this may also be a great time to sell. Valuations are trending in the right direction and business confidence is higher than it has been in some time.

Many strategies exist to put your money in motion and improve your retirement savings plan.

And as I have mentioned in the past, it's not just traditional investments that should be assessed. Prices for assets such as life insurance, have fallen for some, making now a good time to re-evaluate coverage, its cost and your ultimate need for it. A life settlement can transform a non-performing or unneeded policy to cash.

The overall improvement of the economy gives us all hope that 2015 will ditch the naughty and spare the nice when it comes to helping Americans save for retirement. (And, oh yeah, I believe Betty has probably been naughty.) Happy Holidays.