Michelle Singletary

Michelle Singletary is a nationally syndicated personal finance columnist for The Washington Post. Her column, "The Color of Money" is an award-winning column, which is now carried in about 100...

Are you prepared for the coming retirement storm?

Stop complaining about the demise of pensions, and start preparing.

As with a category 5 hurricane, Americans are in for catastrophic problems if we fail to address the looming retirement crisis.

Retirement planning cannot be shoved down on your to-do list.

If you’re in your 20s, start thinking about it now, because you’ve got plenty of time to correct the things that people in their 30s, 40s and 50s wish they hadn’t put off.

In its annual long-term financial outlook, the Social Security Board of Trustees said the trust funds that make old-age and disability payments are projected to run out of money by 2034, with only 79 percent of benefits payable.

A report by the Government Accountability Office found that among households headed by someone 55 or older, about 29 percent don’t have either a pension or retirement savings. Among those who do have savings, the median amount for households headed by someone 55 to 64 is about $104,000, and $148,000 for households headed by someone 65 to 74. That’s “equivalent to an inflation-protected annuity of $310 and $649 per month, respectively,” the GAO said.

Although the percentage of people borrowing from their 401(k) has remained steady at about 10 percent, the loan amounts are increasing. The average 401(k) loan reached $9,720 at the end of second quarter, up from $9,630 at the end of last quarter and $9,500 a year ago, according to a new report by Fidelity Investments.

The concern about 401(k) loans is that people may stop making contributions or, worse, lose their jobs and then not be able to pay back the loan, the authors write.

So, am I scaring you?

I hope. But I want more than to scare you. I want you to act. For the Color of Money Book Club pick for August, your reading assignment is “Falling Short: The Coming Retirement Crisis and What To Do About It” by Charles D. Ellis, Alicia H. Munnell and Andrew D. Eschtruth (Oxford University Press, $24.95).

The authors have an impressive background in advocating for retirement security. Ellis has decades of investment experience. Munnell is the director of Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research, and Eschtruth directs the center’s communications.

“America’s retirement problem is very big and getting bigger every year,” the authors write. “Baby boomers and those who follow will retire in a much different situation than their parents. They will need to finance their consumption for a longer time and will receive less retirement support from both Social Security and employer-sponsored plans.”

There are just five relatively short chapters in the 159-page book. The authors focus on four big questions:

How did we get into this crisis?

How big is the problem?

What can you do to help yourself?

What can we do as a nation to fix the crisis?

To get to where we need to be, we have to understand the formation of the storm. From family farms to factories, the concept of retirement has changed significantly. “Retirement as a distinct stage of life is a fairly recent innovation,” the authors write.

I think it’s helpful to trace retirement’s evolution from the establishment of corporate and union pensions to Social Security to the shift from defined-benefit plans (traditional pensions) to the 401(k) and IRA.

“Social Security is now mature and expensive,” the trio said. “If we continue to retire in our early 60s, we will not have enough saved to support our standard of living for 20 or more years of retirement,” they said. “So we must adjust in one way or another — accept lower living standards once we stop working, save more while working, and/or work longer.”

OK, so what can we do?

Stop complaining about the demise of pensions. We can’t go back in time. The most important thing is to realize we are largely on our own. And then, accepting this fact, do what people do when a major storm is coming: Prepare.

The authors walk you through a number of ways to boost your savings even if you’ve started late. “The new world of retirement requires more of our attention than the old,” they point out.

Finally, can we, as a nation, work to protect against this impending retirement tempest? I’m not optimistic about the proposals in the book given the current political squabbling in which nothing ever seems to get done. So, it’s back on us.

From savings to health care to Social Security, you’ve got to start thinking now about the day when you can’t work or don’t want to work. This little book about a big issue will help you plan for the retirement you desire.

I’ll be hosting a live online chat about “Falling Short” at noon Eastern on Sept. 3 at washingtonpost.com/discussions. Eschtruth will be joining me to answer your questions about retirement.


Source: Portland Press Herald

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