The Real World of Money

Picture a healthy 59-year-old who has long been looking forward to the day he can hang up his clip-on tie and say sayonara to the punch clock. Each night he eats dinner in front of the TV and smiles at the pictures of his grandkids on the mantel. He looks forward to his retirement when he will have time to travel to both coasts and spend some real time getting to know them. In the stack of mail on his kitchen table is a summary of his retirement account savings. It shows he has less than $60,000 set aside for his rapidly approaching future.

Then there's the successful 42-year-old divorced mother of two. She's been juggling family, friends, and finances, but each month she manages to make ends meet and have enough left over to spoil the kids on special occasions. After months of searching, she finds a higher-paying job at a firm that's closer to home. On her last day at work, she asks the human resources department to have the 401(k) plan administrator cut her a check for the funds in her retirement account. Instead of rolling that money into her new employer's retirement plan or a self-directed IRA, she figures she'll use the savings to pay off her car and get rid of a little credit card debt. It'll be a month or so before she realizes that the check -- minus early-withdrawal penalties and taxes -- won't cover her last car payments after all.

There's the new kid in the marketing department. The 401(k) plan paperwork is quickly disappearing under a pile on his desk. He thinks he can't afford to participate -- even though the company has a generous matching program and the money comes out of his paycheck before taxes are taken out.

There's the woman standing in front of you at the checkout line. She's staring at her wallet trying to remember which credit card isn't close to being maxed out.

The couple two tables over at the café are expecting a baby girl in three months. They'll talk to her grandparents about helping out with college tuition when those years roll around. But before their daughter's in kindergarten, one set of grandparents will have to declare bankruptcy.

  • Three-fourths of workers age 55 to 64 have less than $56,000 saved for retirement.
  • Forty-two percent of workers cash out their 401(k)s rather than transfer (or "roll over") the assets to an IRA or a new employer's retirement plan.
  • One-third of "millennials" (those born after 1979) do not contribute a single dollar to their work-sponsored retirement savings plan.
  • Twenty percent of credit cards are maxed out.
  • One out of every 73 U.S. households files for bankruptcy -- a growing concern among the elderly.

It's a lot easier to stomach impersonal statistics about our nation's money maladies than face what's really in our hearts and wallets. But deep in the decimals and pie charts and means and extremes are people making everyday financial decisions that may reverberate through the rest of their lives.

We know these people; we are these people.

We fail to face what retirement will really cost and take a few simple steps to make our money work as hard as it can for our futures.

Temporarily blinded by a big payout, we cash out of our work 401(k) or 403(b) instead of honoring what that money was earmarked for and rolling it over into another retirement savings vehicle.

The nebulous future seems so far off that we fritter away an investor's greatest asset -- time -- and don't save for the future when it'll make the biggest difference.

So many of us are tempted by the lifestyle marketers say we deserve. The lending industry has made it easy to buy a way of life we can't afford on borrowed dollars at high interest rates.

One unforeseen catastrophe -- disability, family death, job loss -- is all it takes to bring financial ruin when a simple cash cushion is all it takes to stay afloat.

Statistics can't tell the real story about the state of your finances, only you can. But you also have all the power when it comes to righting any past or present wrongs. Do one thing today to make your financial future brighter and improve those gloom and doom statistics -- one Fool at a time.

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