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Americans Now Expect to Retire Younger ... but Should They?

By Daniel B. Kline - Nov 29, 2018 at 6:05AM

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According to a new survey, the average U.S. worker feels more confident about their retirement preparedness than they did five years ago -- an optimism that is at odds with the facts.

For decades, 65 was viewed as "retirement age," but these days, there's no longer a specific point when most people stop working. There are, of course, a few professions with mandated retirement ages , but in general, if you choose to (or need to), you can extend your career well beyond the birthday where you'd traditionally have called it quits.

Yet despite the gradual increase in Social Security's "full retirement age," a greater social acceptance of working later in life, and the fact that more of us are capable of doing so, our target retirement ages are actually getting lower. According to the 2018 MassMutual State of the American Family Study, the average American now expects to retire at 62, a two-year decline from the last time this research was conducted in 2013. In fact, 40% of respondents said they plan to retire before age 60, up from 32% five years ago, and only 22% expect to wait until 65 (down from 30% in 2013).

"MassMutual's research shows that Americans are more optimistic than they were five years ago and more are likely to be considering early retirement," said MassMutual Workplace Solutions Spokesperson Tom Foster in a statement to The Motley Fool. "However, we caution anyone thinking about early retirement to look before you leap."

An older couple walks on a beach.

Retirement planning can be the difference between walks on the beach and worrying about money. Image source: Getty Images.

Are Americans too confident?

Those more upbeat expectations may have been driven in part by our improved retirement account balances. Even after the recent selloff, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has climbed by about 50% in the past five years, and the broader S&P 500 is up by around 46%. However, those rising lines on our monthly statements may be making some of us overconfident.

"Many people's confidence in the ability to retire sooner may be misplaced," Foster said. "While 401(k) balances have grown larger in recent years, they may not necessarily be sufficient to support the income many people need to retire."

While people are more confident about retiring sooner, they haven't actually saved that much more money. MassMutual noted that 401(k) average balances have only risen to $75,385 in 2018 from $72,383 in 2013.

Perhaps reflective of a bit more relative caution, confidence about being able to retire at any age has only climbed from 45% in 2013 to 47% today. And in a similarly realistic/pessimistic vein, the percentage worried about outliving their retirement savings has climbed from 33% in 2013 to 35% now.

"We urge pre-retirees to conduct a gap analysis before deciding when to retire," Foster said. "Compare your projected expenses in retirement to your projected income. If there is an income gap, you may need to save more, work longer or a combination of both."

What should you look at?

Many people appear to be letting wishful thinking guide their retirement plans. They think they're in decent shape and on track to hit their goals, but they haven't given their finances the proper scrutiny to know for sure. Foster broke down exactly what people ought to do before considering retirement dates.

"A gap analysis should take into consideration a wide range of retirement expenses, including taxes, Medicare supplement coverage, a mortgage or rent if applicable, and lifestyle choices such as dining out, entertainment, travel, and others," he said. "Projected income should include income generated from savings such as 401(k)s or IRAs, Social Security, a pension if you have one, and potentially an inheritance or other money."

Basically, you need to be honest with yourself, and do the real math. That includes making a realistic budget for your retirement that properly factors in the changes it will bring. Will you be downsizing, or moving somewhere with a lower cost of living? Will your household shift from two cars to one? Every choice matters, and until you run the numbers, any talk of retirement is just that -- talk.

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