Sometimes, little changes can cause big problems.
Here's a little change that could be a doozy: One of the ideas being tossed around as part of the deficit-reduction talks between Congress and the White House is a change in the way the government calculates inflation. How's that a deficit-reduction idea? Simple: If inflation appears to be lower, government payments that are indexed to the inflation rate will grow more slowly.
Government payments like Social Security.
You see what I mean?
You just can't rely on Social Security
I don't think Social Security will ever go away entirely (and it shouldn't), but even today, it doesn't amount to a whole lot: an average of $1,177 a month, as of the beginning of 2011. That works out to a little more than $14,000 a year -- enough to keep you fed in a pinch (if you're careful, and I hope you like mac and cheese), but that's not a fun retirement -- at least not the way most of us envision it.
You need more, and you know it.
Fortunately, lots of people seem to know it. Fidelity Investments says that about 65% of those who are eligible to participate in their employers' 401(k) plans do so -- a pretty good total, all things considered. (A lot of the folks who don't participate tend to be young, or part-timers, or minimum-wage types, or all three.)
But for more than half of those folks -- 55%, again according to Fidelity -- that 401(k) is all they're doing to save for retirement. Better that than nothing, I say, and right now that may be all that many people can easily afford.
But a 401(k) alone, good as it is, may not be enough to retire the way you really want.
The limits of a 401(k)
Here's the problem with 401(k)s: You'll struggle to generate really great returns. Often, the best investment options in a 401(k) are index products, or actively managed funds that, statistically speaking, are unlikely to do much better. That's much better than nothing, but it could be a problem given that we may be looking at years of subpar market performance.
To really get the kind of growth that we all want to see over time, the kind that can fund the retirement we all want, you need stocks. Good stocks. And unless you're one of the very few folks whose 401(k) allows you to buy individual stocks, that means you'll need an IRA.
But I can't afford to fully fund my 401(k) and an IRA right now! I hear that. So here's my suggestion: Start with the 401(k). If your employer offers a matching contribution, contribute enough to collect all of it -- that's free money, and you want to get it. But after that, make the IRA your priority.
Making the most of your IRA
I think some folks are intimidated by the idea of an IRA because they don't know what to buy. But that shouldn't trouble you -- after all, this is The Motley Fool. We've got plenty of great stock ideas.
Speaking of dividends, I think there's a lot to be said for stocks with solid dividends during times when the overall market is stagnant, and keeping those stocks in an IRA helps you get the most out of every dividend dollar. Consider Cincinnati Financial
Or heck, go high-tech. Google
The bottom line
Google notwithstanding, I do think there's a lot to be said for dividends in times like these, especially if you can find some well-run companies that will be able to sustain good payments year after year. Those are exactly the kind of stocks featured in The Motley Fool's new special report, "13 High-Yielding Stocks to Buy Today." Hundreds of thousands have requested access to this report, and today we're making it available to Fool readers completely free of charge. Just click here for instant access.
Fool contributor John Rosevear is on Google+ and likes it a lot -- if you've checked it out, stop by and say hello. He doesn't hold any of the stocks mentioned in the article. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google, Schlumberger, and National Presto Industries. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Google. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.