Are You Afraid of Retirement?

To hear American women speak of it, the nation's financial future is bleak.

According to a recent survey by Harris Interactive, nearly half of the female respondents said they were afraid of becoming a "bag lady" later in life. Not "financially insecure" or "unstable" or even "low-income." A bag lady.

How could this be? How, in this age of two-income homes, when the glass ceiling is cracked daily and when the percentage of women who are earning more than $100,000 annually is increasing, could women still feel so financially unmoored?

It starts with a lack of confidence -- in their pensions, in their Social Security, in their savings.

How to keep your fear at bay
The survey respondents were right to express concern about the 20th-century retirement standards: traditional pensions and Social Security. The former is nearing extinction, and all signs indicate that the latter is in a state of flux at best. But the good news is, these women have lots of alternatives.

Though traditional pensions have fallen off the face of the corporate landscape, 401(k)s and IRAs have risen up to take their place. In each of these investment vehicles, retirement hopefuls can take charge of their own destiny and choose funds and individual stocks that are most useful to them. Many companies' 401(k) plans are now diversifying considerably -- and offering company-sponsored matches, to boot. And with IRAs, the sky's the limit -- the power is yours to choose stocks, funds, and ETFs to create your own retirement portfolio.

And in such a portfolio, sensible asset allocation is key. In a recent issue of Rule Your Retirement, advisor Robert Brokamp laid out three model portfolios -- conservative, moderate, and aggressive -- to help guide retirees-to-be through the diversification process. In the moderate portfolio, for example, Robert advises larger holdings in large-caps and smaller holdings in small caps, REITs, and international. In practical terms, a collection of funds matching these characteristics would be an excellent way to allocate. The Vanguard Large-Cap Index (FUND: VLACX  ) , for instance, holds such behemoths as ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) and General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) , while the iSharesRussell 2000 ETF (AMEX: IWM  ) holds companies like Phillips-Van Heusen (NYSE: PVH  ) and Sybase (NYSE: SY  ) . Add in an international fund like the Vanguard Total International Stock Index (VGTSX) and a REIT ETF like Vanguard REIT Index ETF (VNQ), and you've got access to such indices as the European Stock Index and investment trusts like Archstone-Smith Trust (NYSE: ASN  ) , too.

One of the most interesting facets of the Harris survey was the revelation that many women (18%, in fact, compared with 9% of men) maintain a "secret stash" of money that's separate from the household accounts. This ties directly in with the respondents' fears of a loss of wealth later in life. But while, on its surface, such a practice may seem underhanded and/or dishonest, there's a valuable lesson here.

Whether or not the stash is really kept secret from your spouse, pretending that it is -- acting like the money doesn't exist -- can be a helpful way of saving even more for retirement. "Out of sight, out of mind" can work wonders for your bank account. If you hide the money from yourself, you won't be able to spend it. And if you're not able to spend it, you're able to apply those funds to your long-term plans. Not bad!

The Foolish bottom line
All of this isn't to say that the respondents' concerns are unfounded. Retirement is a life stage that's too big to plan for quickly. And given the growing American lifespan, it's a stage that can last for decades. But are these women's concerns a harbinger of an awful financial future?

The short answer is no -- and yes, too. If the women in question prepare for retirement sensibly, if they sock away a good chunk of their $100,000-plus salaries and live below their means, and, most important, if they invest wisely for the long term while diversifying their holdings and savings vehicles, then their financial futures will be bright.

If they get stuck in the worry stage, however, and never progress to action -- or, worse, if they don't worry at all but rather spend their money as quickly as they make it, never taking the time to save -- they'll never see a comfortable retirement. They may not end up as "bag ladies," but they won't be on the top of the wealth hierarchy, either.

And that's something to worry about.

Do you have concerns about your own retirement plan? Learn more about asset allocation, diversification, savings, and more each month in Rule Your Retirement. A free 30-day trial is yours for the taking.

Hope Nelson-Pope is online coordinating editor at The Motley Fool. She owns none of the companies mentioned in this article. The Fool's disclosure policy is well-diversified, indeed.

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