Some people live for their jobs. I don't know any of them.

For the rest of us, a job is the primary way we support ourselves and our families. If you're in that group with me, you've probably asked yourself whether you'll ever be able to retire -- and if so, when.

Unfortunately, that simple two-part question has a fiendishly complicated answer that depends on many projections about the future. For instance:

  • How long you'll live
  • How well your physical and mental health hold out
  • How bad inflation will be
  • How well your investments will perform
  • How much you'll be able to save every year between now and retirement
  • What kind of retiree benefits you'll receive.

If you could pinpoint the results, it'd be easy to plug your current financial data into a spreadsheet and come up with The Answer.

Get real
Answers to financial questions are rarely simple. You could, for instance, give France's Jeanne Calment a run for her money as the world's longest-living person. Likewise, depending on your investment strategy and the whims of the market, your overall portfolio performance could be all over the map.

Just think back to the 1970s and the Nifty Fifty stocks. Those were supposedly "one-decision" stocks that you could buy, hold, and forget about forever. Yet looking through that list today reveals a number of less-than-ideal results over the decades. Many of those companies no longer exist independently.

For instance, Chesebrough-Ponds is now a unit of Unilever (NYSE: UL) (NYSE: UN), and what's left of Heublein Brewing Company is now part of Diageo (NYSE: DEO).  Even ignoring those and other no-longer-independent companies like them, including Joe Schlitz Brewing, Polaroid, and S.S. Kresge, their results haven't all been stellar. For instance:


Price on

Price on


Bristol- Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY)




Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW)




S&P 500




Pfizer (NYSE: PFE)




Walt Disney




All data split-adjusted.

Sure -- entertainment giant Walt Disney and pharmaceutical titan Pfizer have done quite well since the 1970s. On the other hand, neither Dow Chemical nor Bristol-Myers Squibb (itself a merger of two former Nifty Fifty stocks) managed to keep pace with the overall market. Sure, there were some stunning successes from the Nifty Fifty, but there were certainly enough failures to make it clear that they were anything but "one-decision" stocks.

The lesson is that an investment strategy based on "set it and forget it" runs a serious risk of failing.

A lifelong journey
When you look at the big picture of your retirement, it should be clear that your future has many moving parts. As a result, there's no simple answers to whether and when you can retire.

Don't let that stop you from trying, though.

The good news? You don't have to take that journey alone. My Fool colleague Robert Brokamp is a master at helping you build the plan you need, and his Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement service is a great way to take your retirement planning from idle pondering to successful plotting. If you're ready to build the plan that can take you from here to retirement, then click here to start your free, 30-day, no-obligation trial.

This article was originally published on Oct. 3, 2007. It has been updated.

At the time of publication, Fool contributor Chuck Saletta did not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. Diageo, Unilever, and Dow Chemical are Income Investor recommendations. Disney is a Stock Advisor pick. Pfizer is an Inside Value selection. The Fool's disclosure policy hopes to beat Mme. Calment and live to at least 123.