It sounds like a question from a grim parlor game: If you had to choose, would you rather run out of money in retirement or die?
Even more grim is how baby boomers answered: 61% of the 3,200 boomers (ages 44 to 75) surveyed by Allianz Life said they feared outliving their income more than they dreaded meeting the Grim Reaper.
Admittedly, the official wording of the question was probably a lot less dramatic than my reimagining. Still, the results reveal a high level of financial anxiety among those nearing or already in retirement.
Sadly, the death-vs.-destitution response is not the most alarming revelation from the May 2010 study.
The future looks oblique
Here's another cocktail-hour conundrum to ponder. You are presented with two scenarios: Which one are you more likely to guess correctly?
1. Guess how many gumballs are in the jar at the county fair.
2. State how much money you will need at the point of retirement.
Survey respondents were nearly evenly split on that one: 47% were more confident in their gumball-guessing skills, compared to 53% who liked their odds at gauging their retirement-income needs. Although the loss of life was not a part of this scenario, the response is still a shocker.
The consequences of miscalculating the amount of money you'll need to survive are obviously a lot worse than being a bad judge of how much chewing gum is in a jar. Plus, figuring out how much you'll spend in retirement is only part of the equation. And, based on the study results, that's the easier number to nail.
Allianz Life asked participants to state how much yearly income is needed in retirement, and the respondents were right in the ballpark: They indicated a median income of $59,000 per year. But when asked how much they would need to save to create that household income, boomers low-balled big time, underestimating their savings needs by a factor of nearly three.
Stop guessing: Start knowing
With so much riding on this critical information, there's no time to play guessing games with your financial future. Here are five ways to tackle your fears of the future and turn anxiety into action.
Run your numbers (and then run 'em again): A successful retirement plan starts with real numbers, not hunches. There are plenty of retirement tools on the Internet that can help you get real answers to questions like "Am I saving enough?" and "Am I spending too much in retirement?" We recommend consulting at least three, since answers tend to vary. Start with our suite of retirement calculators, and then check out tools on your broker's website or within your personal finance software.
To figure out how much you'll likely spend in retirement (and to prevent sticker shock in the future), use our post-retirement expense calculator. Remember, many expenses decline or disappear in retirement.
Accumulate the right way: Relying on a company pension to carry you through your golden years is a strategy of a bygone era. Even Social Security provides but a fraction of what current and soon-to-be retirees need to survive. Today's tools of retirement savings are IRAs and 401(k)s -- self-directed plans that give us more control over our investments.
Control is a powerful tool. Wield it thoughtfully. As my colleague John Rosevear points out in "5 Retirement-Trashing Moves," it's simple to automate your savings into these types of accounts (which is great!), but it's also easy to under-fund your future by picking inappropriate investments and incorrectly prioritizing your other savings goals.
Don't let the market scare you away: The ups and downs can shake even the most seasoned investor's confidence. Still, yanking your money out of stocks is almost a guaranteed way to come up short when your need your money the most. (See "You Missed the Bottom: Now What?" for a reality check.) Cash or fixed-income products like bonds are indeed less volatile than stocks. But if you're retired for a long time and keep too much of your money in fixed income, your portfolio may not even keep up with inflation, leaving you with less spending power. ("The Fool's Rules for Asset Allocation" explains how to determine the mix of assets at every stage in your investing life.)
Stay in the game for the long haul: The portion of your portfolio invested in stocks should strike a balance between short-term peace of mind and long-term growth. Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG ) , Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ ) , and Kraft (NYSE: KFT ) are all large, established dividend-paying stocks that generate income every quarter, giving you the option of taking the cash or reinvesting the dividends. Combined with the steady growth these companies have provided over the years, those payouts could help keep the destitution demons away from you throughout your lifetime. (See "Dividends for 100 Years" for more ideas.)
And don't abandon other kinds of investments, either. You should have some exposure to international stocks, too. You can spread out your risk and stick with well-known companies with a worldly bent by investing in international stocks and mutual funds.
Don't face your fears alone: Here at Fool.com, we have a fantastic community of folks willing to lend an ear, an opinion, and advice. Check out the Retirement Investing discussion board.
And if you need professional help -- to develop a full-blown financial plan from scratch or to simply give you a second opinion on your work -- don't just hire any "yes" man or woman who earns commissions by pushing products that may or may not be right for you. Use a fee-only financial advisor who charges by the hour or project. (To find such an advisor near you, use this map to search the Garrett Planning Network's group of fee-only advisors. Those identified with the Motley Fool logo are offering a limited-time 10% discount to our readers.)