Optimism is good; denial isn't. When it comes to retirement plans, the evidence is overwhelming: The recent recession will delay retirements for millions and reduce the standard of living of many people who are, or thought they were, near retirement.
A 2009 Pew Research Center survey, for example, found that most middle-aged Americans were thinking about altering their retirement plans. Yet despite the short-term adjustments that consumers have made -- looking for bargains, saving more -- many continue to hold expectations about retirement that experts say are simply no longer realistic.
1. Your retirement plans haven't changed. This is the big one, and most people are kidding themselves if this is their view. McKinsey has developed what it calls a retirement readiness index (.pdf file). It measures changes in the values of retirement assets -- Social Security, pensions and financial holdings -- to determine the financial preparedness of households for retirement.
An index value of 100 means a household can maintain its current standard of living in retirement. A reading below 80, McKinsey says, "calls for large reductions in spending on basic needs, such as housing, food, and health care." The index reading for a typical household last year registered at 63.
First, add up Social Security and any pensions. Next, total up any retirement accounts and other financial assets and assume conservatively that 4% of that amount is available to you each year for spending needs. How does the total compare with what you're spending now?
Some financial planners say you can live for less in retirement, but health-care expenses likely will be steeper, and if you want to travel and enjoy leisure-time activities, your spending could rise, not fall.
3. Your home is still your castle. Housing values fell sharply in most markets, and many experts say it easily could take a decade for them to return to the inflation-adjusted values of 2007. Yet McKinsey found that the percentage of consumers expecting to finance their retirements by tapping the equity in their homes actually had risen.
Take a serious look at the likely equity you'll have in your home when you reach your planned retirement age. Dean Baker, a co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, says those trillions in lost housing values will be a drag on the economy and retirements for years.
"I remain a pessimist on the prospect for a recovery anytime soon," he says.2009 survey from Securian Financial.
More than 60% of nonretirees polled said they expected to have no debt other than a mortgage when they retire, and only about 20% expected to have some debt. But more than half the retirees in the survey said they carried debts, excluding mortgages, into retirement.
Likewise, less than a quarter of nonretirees said they believe they will still owe money on a mortgage when they retire, but twice as many people who already have retired said they were still making mortgage payments when they stopped working.
This article was reported by Philip Moeller for U.S. News & World Report.
Updated May 6, 2010
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