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Prepare for a Gruesome Retirement

It's time for some tough love. After all, I want you to have a comfortable retirement, doing things that you enjoy and have always desired. That may mean dining in fine restaurants, traveling to the Galapagos Islands to see blue-footed boobies, or taking your grandchildren to Hershey, Pa., to eat chocolate to their hearts' content -- and then coming home from these activities to your spiffy retirement community.

But judging from some startling statistics I discovered, you're in danger of a retirement that's quite the opposite. Picture dining on Salisbury steak TV dinners, traveling to the Git'n'Go down the street for a bag of chips, taking your grandchildren to the Salvation Army as you shop for some new clothes -- all while living in a relative's damp basement.

The facts
According to the 2005 Retirement Confidence Survey (RCS), we can be confident that many people will have gruesome retirements. In fact, according to a separate survey, 31% of Americans would rather scrub a bathroom than plan for retirement. Rest assured: If you've been putting off planning for your retirement, you're not alone. (I can't speak for the scrubbing thing.)

Check out the numbers from the RCS survey. They reflect the total savings and investments (not including the value of the primary residence) of today's workers, broken down by age group:

Retirement Savings

All Age Groups

25-34

35-44

45-54

55+

Less than $25,000

52%

70%

50%

41%

39%

$25,000-$49,999

13%

12%

15%

14%

12%

$50,000-$99,999

11%

9%

14%

13%

7%

$100,000-$249,999

12%

5%

10%

17%

23%

$250,000 or more

11%

4%

10%

16%

19%

Source: Retirement Confidence Survey (2005)

These statistics don't include Social Security payouts. Maybe there's a reason for that. I have at least two decades until retirement. In fact, I recently received my latest statement from the Social Security Administration and found out that the amount I can expect to receive at my full retirement age of 67 isn't much more than my current mortgage payment. My 30-year mortgage won't be finished by the time I hit the big 6-7, and my mortgage and tax payments will likely be much higher because of rising taxes. Making matters worse, it's possible that I -- no, we -- can't be entirely sure that Social Security will be around in much the same form in my -- no, our -- golden years.

Then there are pensions to consider. The truth is that darn few of us have traditional pensions anymore. An Associated Press article highlighted the issue: "In 1985, 89% of Fortune 100 companies offered traditional pension plans, but that had fallen to 51% by 2004, according to Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a human resources consulting firm. Some 11% of the plans in the Fortune 1000 were frozen or terminated for new employees, up from 5% in 2001." Companies that have frozen all or part of their traditional pension plans (or are slated to do so) include Citigroup, Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) , IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) , and General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) .

I think it's better to rely instead on those factors that are under our control: our savings and investments.

What the facts mean
Let's say you're a typical 40-year-old working American. According to the table, there's about a 50% chance that your savings and investments total less than $25,000. Let's be generous and assume you have $20,000 socked away and you also have about 25 to 30 years until you retire. How will that money grow for you? Well, here's what happens when we assume that you earn the market's average long-term return of 10%:

  • 2007 (age 40): $20,000
  • 2017 (age 50): $51,875
  • 2027 (age 60): $135,550
  • 2037 (age 70): $349,000

Now, let's use some information I've gleaned from the Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter service: In order to make your nest egg last, you should conservatively plan to withdraw about 4% of it per year in retirement. So 4% of $349,000 is almost $14,000. That's about $1,200 a month. Will that be enough? According to an inflation calculator I used, what cost a buck 30 years ago will cost about $3.75 today. Assuming the same rate going forward, your $14,000 in 2036 will buy you what you can get for $4,700 today. So that $1,200 a month will feel more like $400. Startling, isn't it?

Another way to look at it is to realize that the 4% withdrawal rate should include inflation-indexed increases, so if you're taking out $14,000 in the first year of retirement (and inflation that year is 3%), the next withdrawal will be 1.03 times $14,000, or $14,420. Can you imagine how quickly your money will go? (Note: You can withdraw more each year. If you're taking out 5% annually over 30 years, you have roughly a three-in-four chance of not running out of money, but that's far from a sure thing.)

If you want to live off the current equivalent of $50,000 per year in 30 years, you can estimate that you'll have to withdraw $150,000 annually. If that's 4% of your nest egg, then that nest egg will need to be $3.75 million! Still startled?

It gets better ... and worse
This is, of course, just one (hypothetical) example. There are plenty of other concerns that can make matters better -- or worse. For instance:

  • Many of us have seen age 40 come and go, and we still have less than $25,000 socked away. Heck, 39% of Americans ages 55 and older are in that camp. Remember that we can all make the situation better by investing regularly. A rule of thumb is to save and invest 10% of your income (but more is better).
  • Many of us will have home equity to tap, if need be, in retirement. We'll also receive at least something from Social Security -- and perhaps even a little from a pension.
  • The stock market's return over the next 10, 20, and 30 years isn't going to match the historical average of 10%. It could be higher. Or it could be lower, meaning you can end up with a considerably smaller nest egg than you expected. It's similar with individual stocks. Look at software giant Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL  ) as an example. Over the past 19 years, its stock returned roughly 8,600%, or 27% annually on a compound growth basis. Yet over just the past five years, Oracle's return has been close to zero. The same thing has happened with Cisco. Over the past 15 years, its stock advanced approximately 31% per year. But over the past five? Its compound annual growth rate is around 8%. This doesn't mean these are bad companies or stocks. It just demonstrates how volatile stocks can be, especially over relatively short time periods.
  • Don't assume that your stash of company stock will save you. Having too much of your financial future resting on the fate of one company is risky. If you'd acquired shares of JDS Uniphase (Nasdaq: JDSU  ) at the height of the tech bubble, for example, you probably experienced a very painful loss, with the shares having fallen more than 95%. Many investors in Broadcom (Nasdaq: BRCM  ) from the same period are also very disappointed.

There's hope, we promise
Fortunately, all isn't lost. You needn't end up with a gruesome retirement. Here's the tough-love part. If you take some action now, you can begin to set yourself up for a more comfortable retirement. So get going! Forget about scrubbing that bathroom for a while, and tend to your retirement instead. You'll thank yourself for it later.

For retirement guidance, I refer most often to Robert Brokamp's Rule Your Retirement newsletter service. You can, and should, try it for free for a whole month. Doing so will give you access to all the past issues, which feature a host of "Success Stories" profiling people who retired early and are willing to share their strategies. Robert also recently published the anniversary issue, "8 Steps to Ruling Your Retirement," in which he spells it all out for you -- start to finish.

Don't miss out anymore. Go ahead and take a free trial of Rule Your Retirement. It'll cost you nothing, there's no obligation to subscribe, and I'm sure you'll like what you see.

Here's to avoiding a gruesome retirement -- and securing a great one!

This commentary was originally published March 3, 2006. It has been updated.

Longtime contributor Selena Maranjian owns no shares of any company mentioned. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.


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Selena Maranjian
TMFSelena

Selena Maranjian has been writing for the Fool since 1996 and covers basic investing and personal finance topics. She also prepares the Fool's syndicated newspaper column and has written or co-written a number of Fool books. For more financial and non-financial fare (as well as silly things), follow her on Twitter...

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