MP Dunleavey: Retirement saving help if you're already behind

Women in Red

Why you'll need less for retirement

Some experts understand that when you're paying for diapers and day care, it's nearly impossible to save enough for retirement. But it may not be too late to catch up.

By MP Dunleavey
MSN Money

You know those scary reports about how much (I mean, how little) Americans are saving for retirement? The ones that say more than half of workers have less than $25,000 saved?

I'm one of those workers. It's really hard to admit that. And it gets worse:

I recently read an article that said someone my age should have three times her income saved by now -- meaning, for me, more than $250,000 -- or she'll end up eating banana peels for the last 20 years of her life (which will be mercifully shortened to 10 years because of malnutrition).

Clang! I saw those numbers and heard the door to the dungeon of eternal poverty slam shut.

Nooooooo! I wailed to my husband. There must be a way out!

So I began digging online, searching for "contrarian retirement planning," "retirement planning alternatives," "cryogenics as a retirement plan." And I just might have found a way out.

Savings based on reality

It turns out that not everyone agrees with those hand-wringing headlines, telling us that no one is saving and that we are all doomed to live on $38 a month and ramen. In fact, a small but feisty band of economists and financial planners says people like me need to overhaul our assumptions about retirement planning.

The traditional retirement-saving model is based on saving a nest egg big enough to replace 80% of your highest income -- a stash so big that you should be able to withdraw 4% of it per year and leave the principal untouched while you go yachting.

No wonder most people look like retirement deadbeats.

But in the past decade or so, economists and rogue financial experts have turned to a more reality-based mode of planning. Life-cycle planning acknowledges that people's ability to save, and their consumption habits, go up and down over their lives.

"Most people don't save when they are in their 20s, and many don't save in their 30s," says Scott Burns, a co-author of "Spend 'Til the End" and the chief investment strategist of AssetBuilder, an investing company in Plano, Texas.

"It's not part of the life cycle," Burns says. "Most people are too busy finding a mate, buying a home (and) having children during those years -- and spending the money it takes to have those things. So, when someone says you should start saving early because of the wonders of compound interest, they are fighting biology. It doesn't work."

Then, as children leave home and careers grow and change, "people in their 50s find themselves able to save much more than they could in their 30s or 40s," Burns says.

And for plenty of us, that works out pretty well. We tend to weather the natural changes to saving and spending throughout our lives.

In a 2008 working paper titled "Are All Americans Saving 'Optimally' for Retirement?" (.pdf), economists examined decades of Americans' spending and saving behavior, as well as their reports of satisfaction with life in retirement. The authors were economists William Gale of the Brookings Institution and John Karl Scholz and Ananth Seshadri of the University of Wisconsin.

They found that a substantial majority of American households had accumulated sufficient wealth to maintain their accustomed standards of living in retirement. About 74% ended up achieving their wealth targets.

"While everyone needs to take responsibility for securing the necessary resources to be comfortable in retirement, on balance it seems that Americans are doing quite well," Scholz says.

Continued: How much will you really need?

More from MSN Money

 1 | 2 | 3 | next >

Rate this Article

Click on one of the stars below to rate this article from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest). LowHigh