If surveys have taught us anything, it's that the path to retirement is nowhere near as easy as it might appear on paper.
Most workers presume that working for four decades, saving money, and investing it for the future will result in meeting their retirement number. Unfortunately, as many surveys on pre-retirees (i.e., baby boomers) have recently shown, things don't always work out this way. Life has a way of throwing workers for a loop. Things like an unexpected illness, buying a home, paying for college, or starting a family are all costs that workers may fail to account for, thus throwing their plan to get from point A to B into disarray.
We don't have to look far to see what sort of problems baby boomers are dealing with. A study from the Insured Retirement Institute's showed that roughly four in 10 boomers have nothing saved for retirement. A separate study from the Employee Benefit Research Institute suggests that 43% of boomer households aren't on track to meet their financial retirement needs.
But it's current retirees who have an even scarier tale to tell.
Three frightening retirement findings according to retirees
The Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, or TCRS, released it first-ever survey on retirees early last month, The Current State of Retirement: Pre-Retiree Expectations and Retiree Realities (link opens a large PDF), with the major finding being that what pre-retirees believe retirement to be, and what retirement actually is according to retirees, is often very different. Specifically, TCRS points to three critical findings from its study that are downright frightening.
1. Three in five retired earlier than they'd planned
Considering that quite a few boomers are behind the eight ball in terms of saving for retirement, some have chosen the path where they'll work longer than the traditional retirement age of 65. Working longer could delay the need for boomers to file for Social Security benefits, thus allowing their work income to cover their expenses and netting a larger Social Security payout when they do eventually file for benefits.
There's just one problem: There's no guarantee that you'll be able to work past age 65 or that your employer will want you around. A whopping 60% of surveyed retirees noted that they wound up retiring earlier than they had planned. Of those who retired early, 16% had enough money to do so, 27% left the workforce due to issues with their own health, and 66% blamed it on organizational changes within their workplace. These changes encompassed surveyed retirees being laid off, being unhappy with their job, or receiving an early retirement incentive/buyout. By comparison, just 7% retired later than they'd planned.
2. Fewer than 10% were offered retirement transition assistance from an employer
There are a number of critical components to retiring comfortably. In addition to simply saving money and investing in the right places, a retiree also needs to have a sound plan as to how they'll remove the money once they reach their golden years. Not having a retirement plan in place could wind up costing a retiree a lot of money in unnecessary taxes.
According to last month's TCRS survey, fewer than 10% of retirees surveyed affirmed that they'd received financial transition assistance when heading into retirement from their most recent employer. "What's financial transition assistance," you wonder? This would include retirement seminars to get workers prepared to enter retirement prepared for their golden years and financial counseling. Just 8% of retirees surveyed received information on retirement seminars, while 9% had received offers for financial counseling. In other words, per the TCRS study, retirees are being given the building blocks without the instruction manual and being told to put everything together themselves. It's not a formula for success in many instances.
3. More than three-quarters of retirees wish they'd saved more consistently
Finally, when looking back on their years of preparing for retirement, TCRS asked retirees their opinions on a number of statements. At the top of the list were the 76% of retirees who wished they had saved money on a more regular basis (33% strongly agree and 43% somewhat agree). Furthermore, 68% wished they were more knowledgeable about retirement saving and investing, more than half (53%) wish they'd received more financial guidance from their employer, and 48% believe they waited too long to begin saving and investing.
Interestingly enough, what found its way to the bottom of the list were the 41% of respondents that wish they had relied more on "outside experts to monitor and manage" their retirement savings. The retirees in this study have spoken loud and clear: their big regret is that they didn't empower themselves to be more financially knowledgeable.
Take action now
TCRS' survey doesn't paint a pretty picture for retirement, but (and to quote Doc Brown a la Back to the Future) "Your future hasn't been written yet." It's never too late to make positive and proactive changes concerning your retirement. Here are three to consider.
Firstly, don't count on being able to work long into your golden years. If you can, and you feel the need to, then you can consider yourself somewhat lucky. However, counting on working into your late 60s or 70s isn't a reasonable retirement plan because we can't predict how healthy we or our close family members will be.
Instead, consider formulating a budget to live by. Without a budget, workers probably have little clue how much cash is flowing into and out of their checking or savings account. Creating a budget and sticking to it will allow workers to better understand their cash flow so they can optimally save for retirement. Better savings habits are the first step to warding off the need to work into your golden years. It doesn't guarantee success, but saving more efficiently will give pre-retirees a better chance at hitting their retirement number.
Secondly, don't wait for your employer to educate you on what to expect as you head into retirement. You can always consider taking the initiative to press your employer for seminars, counseling, or flexible work arrangements if they offer them. However, your best bet remains being as knowledgeable as possible on your own. Remember, the only that's truly responsible for whether or not you reach your retirement number is you!
Here at The Motley Fool we have an entire section of our website devoted to retirement, including a 13-step guide, as well as information that can help educate you in your quest to make smart investment decisions before and after you retire. Consider this a great place to start if you're eager for investing and saving knowledge and want to remain in the driver's seat of your nest egg.
Lastly, take the time to understand how retirement will affect you and your wallet. It's important to understand certain nuances, such as whether the state you're retiring in taxes Social Security benefits and at what rate retirement income might be taxed. Having a withdrawal plan in place can save you a lot of money during your golden years, as can choosing a tax-friendly state to retire in.
Along those same lines, your income in retirement will commonly drop below what you earned while working. Thus, it can be especially important to maintain a budget months, or even years, before retiring so you can transition into a potentially lower income environment with ease as opposed to a thud. The last thing you want to do is burn through your nest egg at a quicker pace than expected and wind up outliving your money.
The path to retirement may be scary, but trust me, doing nothing about it is even scarier.
Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
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