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Retirement Risks and Pension Perils

You can't miss the trend. More and more employers have decided to freeze or drop their old-fashioned pension plans in favor of retirement benefits that require workers to build their own savings. Even if you have a pension plan, you may be spending some sleepless nights fretting about its health.

The trend has many workers in tax-exempt health-care, education, and government jobs worried, according to a survey by Fidelity Investments. Even though more than half have access to a pension (also known as a defined benefit plan), nearly six in 10 workers worry that it will be reduced or discontinued in the future.

Workers in tax-exempt industries aren't alone. Many companies have worked to improve their balance sheets by moving the risk and responsibility for retirement to their workers. Among certain industries, like airlines, pension freezes and other benefit cuts have become common. UAL (Nasdaq: UAUA  ) froze its pension plan and turned it over to federal insurers while in bankruptcy. In doing so, it joined fellow airline US Airways (NYSE: LCC  ) .

The trend isn't limited to just a few industries, however. IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) recently announced it would eliminate its pension plan in 2008 in favor of 401(k) plans. Some companies simply close the pension plan to new workers. Many younger employees may never have had a job where they could count a pension plan among their benefits.

What's the answer to some of these worries? It may help you sleep at night if you save a little more on your own right now, just in case your employer joins the dump-the-pension bandwagon.

The Fidelity survey found that few tax-exempt workers have chosen that route. Only about 40% plan to compensate by increasing their contributions to their defined contribution plans like 401(k)s, or 403(b)s in the case of these workers.

Saving more money in a 401(k) plan is one route for bulking up your personal retirement cache. If your employer offers a matching contribution, it's probably a good idea to contribute at least enough to take advantage of that benefit. Consider making those contributions even if you expect to receive a robust traditional pension. It's a good investment with the best kind of return -- free money!

If you'd like to feel more secure about your retirement, but you don't necessarily want to lock up your funds in a 401(k) account, you have some other options.

  • An IRA allows you to save more money for retirement and gives you greater control over your investments than a 401(k), which typically limits your choices to a short list of mutual funds. If you qualify, you may get a tax deduction for your contributions to a traditional IRA. You are required to take mandatory distributions after age 70 1/2.
  • An even more flexible retirement-account option is a Roth IRA, which also allows you to invest your money as you please. Unlike the regular IRA, it does not offer any tax deduction for your contributions. In place of that perk, you avoid taxes on any of your earnings when you withdraw the money. If you have some, but not total, confidence in your pension plan, a Roth IRA may be a good option, as it gives you more access to your money than other retirement accounts. Your original contributions can be withdrawn at any time, and in that way the account can double as an emergency fund.

If you're quite confident in your pension plan and just looking for a little bit of a safety net, or you've maximized your Roth IRA contributions, stashing a little extra money away in a taxable account can't hurt. That route will give you the most flexibility and maybe even a better night's sleep.

Related pension pessimism:

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Robert Brokamp would like to help you prepare for your retirement with our Rule Your Retirement newsletter service. You can try it by signing up for a free 30-day trial, with no obligation to buy.

Fool contributor Mary Dalrymple welcomes your feedback. She owns shares in no stocks mentioned in this story. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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