IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Americans still clueless about retirement

Americans are as clueless as ever about their retirement prospects, according to a pair of new studies. We’re woefully overconfident, we grossly underestimate the amount of money we’ll spend in our retirement years, and we have foolish expectations of how much Social Security and pensions will provide.
/ Source: Reuters

Americans are as clueless as ever about their retirement prospects, according to a pair of new studies.

We’re woefully overconfident, we grossly underestimate the amount of money we’ll spend in our retirement years, and we have foolish expectations of how much Social Security and pensions will provide.

We haven’t saved nearly enough, either. But we’re confident, gosh darn it.

Those are the conclusions of both studies. One, the Retirement Confidence Survey, is one of the most established and longest running retirement attitude surveys in the United States, and is primarily underwritten by the Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI).

The second was a survey by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants conducted by Harris Interactive, a polling firm.

“A distressing gap exists between the public’s expectations for retirement and the reality,” said Carl George, a CPA and chairman of the accounting group’s financial literacy commission which requested the study.

Even to supposedly clueless Americans, these results shouldn’t be so surprising. We’ve been beaten over the head with findings like this since the 1980s when 401(k) plans came into being and companies started shifting retirement savings responsibility over to their workers.

After all, the more we’re scared into saving, the more it benefits mutual fund companies and brokers and the more it gets employers off the hook, right? (It’s probably worth noting that most contributing members of EBRI are investment companies, corporations with big benefits plans, and the consultants they hire.)

That doesn’t mean the findings are worthless, though. We are all going to be more responsible for our own retirements than some have been in the past. And it never hurts to save money. The more you have in your pocket when you retire, the more choices about that retirement you have.

But it does mean that many of these studies come from a particular point of view, where they don’t take all issues (like the family home and the stages of retirement) into consideration.

It’s good to do retirement planning and it’s especially good to be realistic while you’re doing it. Here are some pieces of reality to include in your big picture.

  • You may retire earlier than you think, and you may retire involuntarily when you get downsized in your 50s.

So it’s good to have a back up plan for making money on the side.

  • You can, and probably will, use your home equity in retirement.

Most people do, at some point. They either sell their house or get a reverse mortgage to stay put. Or one of their kids moves back in to be a caretaker in their later years.

  • Your spending will vary dramatically throughout your retirement.

This is one of the weaker points in many of the retirement surveys. They make much of the fact that new retirees spend as much as they did during their final working years. But that doesn’t continue for very long. Many older retirees spend very little. The most realistic way to guesstimate retirement spending needs is to sit down and work through a detailed budget.

  • You’ll live a long time in retirement.

If you’re 62 today, the IRS figures you’ve got at least another 23 years ahead of you. Here’s a conservative, but quick way to figure out how much money you’ll need in savings.

Do a realistic annual spending budget. Subtract the amount you’re expected to get in Social Security and pensions. You can find those figures at the Social Security Web site.

Take what’s left (your unmet need) and multiply that figure by 25. If you expect to fall short, start looking at all those familiar alternatives: working longer, living cheaper, saving more.

  • Your investment decisions matter.

If you have $50,000 in savings, and you earn 5 percent a year on that money, you’ll run out of money in 14 years if you withdraw $400 a month.

If you can earn 10 percent a year on that money, you can withdraw $400 a month forever. That means that the value of learning about investing can be worth more than a part-time job at Wal-Mart.

To get started, look at the free info on the Web sites affiliated with AICPA and with EBRI.

  • You’ll figure it out.

The retirement experience is much more elastic than most retirement planners would have you believe. Today’s retirees are not the impoverished class their parents were, and most of them don’t have pensions either.

A little bit more savings, a little bit less spending, some lifestyle decisions down the road (sell the house, move to a cheaper place, give up the car, start a side business) could make the difference for you.

It’s good to save and invest, but there’s no need for obsessive worry. If that makes us all seem clueless, so be it.