There's never been a more important time to learn the basics of personal finance. It used to be that government and employers could be counted on to provide for our retirement. Sadly, that's no longer the case. Defined-benefit plans are going the way of the dodo, and so, too, could Social Security.
Resistance is futile
This transition has not been without pain. Last winter, the Transport Workers Union in New York City went on strike to protect a generous pension plan that allows workers with a 25-year tenure to retire at age 55 and earn half their salary for the rest of their lives.
Accounts had the strike ending in a stalemate, but my guess is that the pension is not sustainable.
Trust no one
Then there are the employers that go bankrupt. When this happens, pension liabilities are transferred to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC), an arm of the federal government. But there are some shortfalls to this model. First, the PBGC caps payouts at approximately $45,000 a year. Second, there are no health-care benefits.
There are also companies that aren't yet bankrupt, but whose pension plans are woefully underfunded. According to Standard & Poor's data, S&P 500 companies face $150 billion of unfunded liabilities. Some of these companies -- like Boeing
The 401(k) solution
Pension obligations have the potential to destroy businesses when times get tough, and abandoned pensions leave retirees much worse off. That's why you see newer companies such as Southwest and JetBlue creating defined-contribution plans (such as 401(k)s) for employees. They've learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. In these plans, the only guarantee is the amount of money that goes in -- not the amount of benefits paid out. This eases the burden on employers, but it increases the burden on employees to make sure the savings are put to good use.
Soon, all Americans will be managing their own IRAs, 401(k)s, and maybe even health savings accounts (HSAs). When that happens, it will be up to you (yes, you!) to know some finance.
But ask yourself: Is there anyone you would rather trust your retirement to than you? As comforting as it is to think that there is an omniscient and beneficent god of retirement out there, neither the government nor your employer is capable of being that deity.
Neither cares about you or your future in anything more than an abstract way. Neither knows the details of your life, health needs, or retirement timeline. That's why managing your own future can make that future better.
When you're in charge of your own money, you pick where and how you want to invest. Risk-averse? Short timeline? Consider a bond fund such as Managers Fremont or a low-cost index such as Vanguard Total Stock Market. If you have a longer timeline, you can learn to pick individual equities and amass a nice nest egg as you try to beat the market year after year after year.
The Foolish bottom line
Scared? Don't be. Help is all around you. For starters, The Motley Fool offers all kinds of resources to help you better manage your money. From choosing the best mutual funds for your money to allocating your resources in the most efficient way to providing helpful tips to save on taxes and reduce paperwork, Rule Your Retirement is your one-stop retirement planning shop. Personal finance guru Robert Brokamp can help you get your retirement on track -- or supercharge it if you've already started saving (in which case you've already taken the first step in the right direction). Click here to take a free trial and have a library of retirement content at your fingertips free for 30 days. There is no obligation to subscribe.
The decline of passive retirement planning is not so much a problem as an opportunity. You can make your future as bright as you want it to be.
This article was originally published Jan. 20, 2006. It has been updated.