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Amid panic, uncertainty, they retired anyway

It took guts and good planning to decide to retire in the middle of the deepest recession in decades.
Image: Bill Cichanski
"Nobody knows if they've got it covered fully in life, but we feel pretty settled,"  Bill Cichanski, a retired engineer in Tacoma, Wash., says of he and his wife's decision to retire.Ted S. Warren / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It took guts and good planning to decide to retire in the middle of the deepest recession in decades.

Even so, those who did felt flickers of self-doubt when the stock market crumbled around the time they banked their final paychecks.

Stocks already had fallen nearly 20 percent from their peak when Bill Cichanski of Tacoma, Wash., walked away from his job as a structural engineer in June 2008. The market crisis that erupted weeks later eroded much more of his savings.

"I was nervous," admits the 65-year-old Cichanski, who had painstakingly built up his holdings to more than $1 million. "But I was still quite comfortable with my decision to retire. I wasn't panicked."

Thanks to his financial preparations for retirement, he has been enjoying himself, hiking in the Cascades with his wife Amanda, doing photography and fishing.

Many older workers have resigned themselves to delaying retirement indefinitely since the downturn that exposed their financial vulnerabilities. But some were able to stick to their timetables and retire anyway, showing what sound planning can overcome.

It doesn't have to be a complex plan, especially if you're under 50. The key in earlier years is simply to set aside as much income as possible for the future. As you move into your 50s and 60s, though, specific plans should take shape.

Most don't sock away enough. The personal savings rate had fallen steadily since the 1980s before rising recently, reaching a still-modest 4.9 percent in the second quarter. And the average person investing in an employer-sponsored defined contribution plan like a 401(k) puts aside only about 6 percent of pay, according to the Profit Sharing/401k Council of America.

Those who are most successful in retirement generally put together a budget well in advance based on their likely expenses and income and with the flexibility to cut spending if need be. Only 43 percent of Americans have calculated how much they need to save for retirement, according to the Labor Department.

"It's never too soon to do a retirement budget — people in their 20s could do it," says Chad Terry, director of retirement solutions for Principal Financial, a Des Moines, Iowa-based retirement and financial services company. "But it becomes far more critical 10 years before retirement."

Cichanski didn't come up with a retirement strategy until he was 50, spurred by a divorce and before he remarried. He had less than $200,000 all told.

With the help of a financial planner, he put those assets in a diverse portfolio that included an Individual Retirement Account, mutual funds, bonds and other fixed instruments and set a goal of 2008 to retire.

It was a conservative strategy, not relying too heavily on stocks or ambitious annual returns. That helped the plan weather two market crashes and enabled him to retire on schedule despite the financial turmoil all around.

"I've never been one to invest in volatile plans," he says. "I've always been moderate and conservative in my approach."

Following his 2000 marriage to Amanda, who is 59 and still works as a legal consultant on elder abuse, they recalculated what would be needed for medical costs in retirement and to maintain their lifestyle. Cichanski kept contributing 10 percent to 12 percent of his pay to his 401(k) and made sure to factor inflation into his long-term plan.

They even managed to set aside enough to do something most couples should have in place before retirement but don't: long-term care insurance. Their cost is steep at $7,400 a year — $3,400 for Bill's plan and $4,000 for Amanda's — but protects their savings from runaway health costs.

"That's a real big piece of our confidence level," says Cichanski, who still works a few hours a week for his old employer out of enjoyment, not financial need. "Nobody knows if they've got it covered fully in life, but we feel pretty settled."

Those without six-figure salaries also can amass enough to retire comfortably. They just have to spend conservatively and save what they can — ideally putting monthly contributions on autopilot to make sure they happen.

Living beneath one's means is the most important part of retirement planning, according to John Ameriks, head of the investment counseling and research group at Vanguard.

Such a frugal approach allowed Niki Athis of Seattle to retire at age 58 last month from her $90,000-a-year job as a corporate sales trainer. When her partner Maureen Tverberg, a carpenter, follows her into retirement in January at 55, they'll be proof that couples can still retire early if they plan right.

The key to their success: Both have been saving 12 percent of their pay in retirement plans for 25 or 30 years, along with jointly contributing $500 a month to a brokerage account in the nearly two decades they've been together.

Besides consulting with a planner, they also did a lot of self-education: going to investing classes and seminars, learning about retirement income and using online retirement calculators to come up with likely financial scenarios.

Athis is confident they'll be able to finance up to four decades in retirement, taking some trips in their newly purchased travel trailer but generally maintaining the low-cost lifestyle that helped them get to this point.

"I spent a great deal of time worrying about it, looking at the stock market, looking at the calculators," she says. "A little bit is a leap of faith, but I keep seeing the numbers and we've got money in the bank and money coming in. We just kept living beneath our means and sticking to the plan."