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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 -- 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, and 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 2006 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. 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 Ages

25-34

35-44

45-54

55+

Less than $25,000

53%

73%

49%

44%

42%

$25,000-$49,999

12%

11%

14%

14%

8%

$50,000-$99,999

12%

7%

16%

12%

12%

$100,000-$249,999

11%

4%

12%

15%

12%

$250,000 or more

12%

5%

9%

16%

26%

Source: Retirement Confidence Survey, April 2006.

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, which informed me 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, all of us -- can't be entirely sure that Social Security will be around in much the same form in our golden years.

Then there are pensions to consider. In truth, 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 recently frozen all or part of their traditional pension plans (or are slated to do so) include IBM, Citigroup, NCR (NYSE: NCR  ) , Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT  ) , AON (NYSE: AOC  ) , and Verizon.

Instead, I think it's better to rely on 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 above, there's about a 50% chance that your savings and investments total less than $25,000. Let's be generous and assume that you have $20,000 socked away, and that 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: To make that nest egg last, you should plan conservatively and 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 to live on in 2037?

According to an inflation calculator I used, what cost a buck 30 years ago costs about $3.75 today. Assuming the same rate going forward, your $14,000 in 2037 will buy you what you can get for $4,700 today. 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 75% 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 won't necessarily match the historical average of 10%. It could be higher. It could be lower -- meaning you can end up with a much smaller nest egg than you expected.
    It's similar with individual stocks. Look at Yum! Brands as an example. Over the past decade, its stock averaged about 18% per year. During the same period, shares of another widespread, growing fast-refreshment franchise, McDonald's (NYSE: MCD  ) , grew at a rather different rate -- about 12% annually.
  • 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 stock in the Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) in November of 2000, for example, they'd have been underwater five years later in 2005, though you'd have received some dividends along the way. Some investors in Pfizer (NYSE: PFE  ) who bought back in 1999 are still underwater by 30% or more. This doesn't mean these companies won't ultimately surge and reward us, but if anyone was counting on them to do so by a certain time, they've likely been disappointed.

There's hope, we promise
Fortunately, all is not lost. You needn't end up with a nightmarish retirement. Here's the "tough love" part. If you take some action now, you can 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 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, among other things, a host of "Success Stories" profiling people who retired early and are willing to share their strategies. Robert also regularly offers recommendations of promising stocks and mutual funds.

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 shares of Yum! Brands and McDonald's. Pfizer is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. The Motley Fool isFools 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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