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Listen Up ... If You Want to Retire

Timothy Bowers, age 63, lost his job as a delivery man for a drug wholesaler in 2003. When the company went bankrupt, he was forced into minimum-wage odd jobs. Caught between his prime working years and his not-yet-begun golden years, Bowers felt that his age prevented him from finding an adequate-paying job.

Rather than struggle to make ends meet, Bowers came up with an outside-the-box solution to tide him over before Social Security checks would roll in: He robbed a bank.

A bit drastic, no?
Most retirees desire the simple pleasures of life: cozy housing, three squares per day, adequate medical benefits, and social interaction with interesting people. Sometimes, achieving these goals requires innovative action. Jail may be a bit drastic, but settling for a retirement in penury is decidedly desperate.

According to reports, Bowers strolled into his local bank and demanded cash. The teller forked over four $20 bills, at which point Bowers surrendered the money to the security guard and waited for the police. Prosecutors planned to argue against jail time to save taxpayer dollars, but they feared he might commit a more reckless crime to fulfill his retirement plan.

Granting him the wish, the judge handed Bowers a three-year sentence.

What could be worse than prison?
While Bowers' plan is emblematic of outside-the-box retirement planning, it's ultimately flawed. Not while he's in prison, mind you -- he has successfully guaranteed shelter, food, and medical treatment for three years. And he certainly will be meeting many interesting individuals. Nope, his retirement plan fails once he leaves prison.

The logic that will make for a gruesome retirement is that Bowers believes Social Security will provide him with a comfortable retirement -- that when he turns 65, the government will take care of him.

He might have to rob a few more banks to subsidize his retirement. Social Security is structured to provide about 30% of a retiree's pre-retirement income. The remaining 70% should come from personal savings and company pensions. Together, the three methods make up the proverbial "three-legged stool" of retirement.

The crooked stool
Bowers is hardly the only American with a misguided view of Social Security. The Social Security Administration estimates that 30% of retired Americans receive 90% or more of their retirement income from their Social Security benefits.

The three-legged stool, then, looks like this:

  1. Personal savings/investments
  2. Social Security
  3. Corporate pensions

The only factor that you can control is No. 1. Current or near-retirees will be sorely disappointed if they rely too much on No. 2, and anyone still in the workforce knows of the well-documented near-extinction of most corporate pensions. Indeed, even solid companies with decades of history are doing away with or freezing their pension programs -- Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) , IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) , Motorola (NYSE: MOT  ) , and SprintNextel (NYSE: S  ) among them.

A better plan
Bowers could have improved his situation considerably if he began a savings plan at a younger age. While it can be difficult to make ends meet on an average salary, it doesn't take much to build a nest egg. If Bowers had invested $2,000 a year in an IRA starting at age 22, he would have had more than $400,000 in retirement savings when he lost his job at age 59 (that's assuming rather modest 8% gains per year).

Finding $2,000 a year requires but $5.48 per day.

Even late starters have no excuse. If Bowers waited until age 40 to begin socking away $2,000 per year, he would have accumulated more than $82,000 in savings (again assuming 8% annual returns). While that's not enough to fund a retirement, if coupled with either of the other two legs of the stool, his retirement may have been saved.

The key to it all is that you must develop a savings plan, even if you think you can't save much or are too old.

For an asset-allocation plan for your savings, specific stocks and funds worth buying, and more tips on avoiding jail time in your golden years, you'd do well to check out the Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter service. Fool retirement guru Robert Brokamp examines retirement strategies that help you avoid sharing a cell with guys nicknamed Slash, Spike, or Mad Dog. And unlike a prison sentence, you aren't committed -- you can try the newsletter free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Kirk Kinder, CFP, doesn't want to spend his retirement in prison. He does not own any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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