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Let's Play Retirement Hardball

We've gingerly danced around the topic of your finances for some time now, but apparently, we're just not getting through. So enough with the "good cop" routine: It's time for some tough love.

Look, you're not saving enough for retirement.

There. We said it. The one-quarter of you who have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan evidently can't be bothered with such mundane details like actually putting money into it. And those of you who do participate in a retirement program can stop smirking -- we're onto you.

In an interview with Employee Benefit News, pension expert and co-author of Coming Up Short: The Challenge of 401(k) Plans Alicia Munnell tattled on the 90% of plan participants who fail to contribute the maximum allowable amount.

Here's a pen. Go ahead and fill out a 401(k) contribution change form. Just suck it up -- you'll never even miss those pre-tax dollars taken out of your paycheck.

While we're on the subject of your financial shortcomings, there's something else we'd like to get off our chests. Although we've said it before (were we mumbling?), we will say it again: Retirement savings are for retirement! All together, please: "Retirement savings are for retirement."

The reason we put our money away in tax-advantaged accounts like IRAs and 401(k)s is because the government gives us a financial incentive (namely, tax savings) to do so. When we touch that money for reasons Uncle Sam deems frivolous (on a spree for new shoes that would make Imelda Marcos proud, for example), we pay a penalty for shortchanging our futures. Is this concept too complex?

Yes, that pile of cash is quite tempting -- particularly when you're tipsy at your going-away-party happy hour, but that's no reason for 55% of you to decide to cash out your 401(k) every time you leave a job.

People, people. Show a little restraint. Is rolling over that money into a self-directed IRA simply too much hassle? Would it kill you to take just five minutes out of your day to fill out a few forms to complete the seamless rollover transaction? No, class is not yet dismissed.

Earth to Reader.Do you copy?
We're not sure exactly which planet you're planning to retire to, but we're guessing it's called Planet Hope For The Best. Our moles at the Employee Benefits Research Institute (ERBI) told us that just 42% of you have tried to figure out how much you'll need to subsist in your senior years; a whopping 66% of you have taken what amounts to a wild guess and figure you'll probably have enough to live out your worry-free retirement in blissful harmony.

Well, we hope that you have about $1 million by the time you're ready to head to the links full-time. Because that's about how much you will need (particularly to pre-fund medical costs) in your golden years. Here's a tissue.

Earth to retiree wannabe: Exactly where do you think that money is going to come from? Fewer than 20% of workers think Social Security will be their primary source of income in retirement, says ERBI, yet the reality is that Social Security is the primary income source for more than two-thirds of the silver-haired set. (Unfortunately, that's not the only Social Security myth making its way around. Here are seven more upon which you might erroneously be basing your investing decisions.)

Oh, and another thing. We need to talk about how you're allocating your assets. In short: You're not.

Evidently, we have been remiss in making sure you're deploying your funds correctly. Look, we know that more than half of you have your entire 401(k) in all stocks, or all fixed-income investments. And when the ERBI and the Investment Company Institute took a closer look at your portfolios, they found that nearly one-quarter of employees over the age of 60 had more than half of their 401(k) assets in their employer's stock, and 16% of them entrusted 80% of their retirement savings to the performance of their company.

Do we need to spell it out for you?

  • E-N-R-O-N
  • W-O-R-L-D-C-O-M -- aka M-C-I (Nasdaq: MCIP  )
  • L-U-C-E-N-T (NYSE: LU  )

Even employees of tried-and-true firms like General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) have been devastated by diversification nightmares. Those who put their financial security in the hands of one company are now looking at accounts worth half of what they were in 2000. If you'd like to continue on this self-destructive bent, here are 10 other ways to totally tank your 401(k).

Ladies, think you fare better? Not so fast. Just because we're better at accessorizing and investing doesn't mean that we all get off scot-free. Your lame-duck retirement plan participation is alarming. Of the 59 million wage and salaried women in the U.S. as of June 2000, less than half participated in a pension plan, according to the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement and the National Center for Women's Retirement Research.

Yoo-hoo! Did you know that women retirees receive about half the average pension benefits of men? Why's that? You're likely to spend 15% of your career out of the workforce caring for kids and elderly parents. For every year you're not toiling in high heels and hose, you have to work five to recover the lost income, pension coverage, and career promotion.

Look, you've got a lot going for you (very few cavities, for example, and decent taste in movies). But we want so much more for you and your future. Trust us, as hard as this has been for you to hear, it has been equally difficult for us to bring it up. We're only having this conversation because we care.

You still here?
To get started building a financial plan, kick the tires on a 30-day free trial of Rule Your Retirement. There's no obligation to subscribe, and a trial includes access to all back issues, interviews with other expert money managers, retirement calculators and how-to guides, and the Fool's dedicated discussion boards, where you'll find hordes of like-minded investors sharing wisdom, ideas, and analysis. Click here to learn more.

Dayana Yochim can take it as well as she can dish it. She owns none of the companies (and has made only a handful of the mistakes) mentioned in this article. The Fool's disclosure policy requires her to keep it real.


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