MONEY Savings

How to Thrive in Retirement After Falling Short of Goals

Turns out, many retirees don't need as much in savings as they once thought. They are surprisingly delighted with their downsized life and embrace a flexible budget.

Maybe the experts are wrong. Retirement planners say you will need at least 70% of pre-retirement income to enjoy your golden years. Some target as much as 80% or even 85%. Yet recent retirees with less say they are doing just fine, thank you.

Three years into retirement, the average replacement income of people with an IRA or 401(k) plan is just 66% of final pay, mutual fund company T. Rowe Price found. Yet more than half say they are living as well or better than when they were working, and 89% say they are somewhat or very satisfied with retirement so far.

Such findings belie our widely accepted retirement savings crisis. In aggregate, we are way under saved. The average 50-year-old has put away just $44,000. But clearly a large subset—those with either a 401(k) plan or IRA, or both—are doing pretty well. This is the group that T. Rowe Price surveyed by filtering for those retired less than five years or over 50 and still working.

This particular group of savers may want to let up on the handwringing. As recent research by EBRI and ICI show, consistent 401(k) investors (those who held accounts between 2007 and 2012) had balances 67% higher than overall plan participants, reaching an average $107,000.

For years a small band of economists led by Lawrence Kotlikoff, the Boston University economics professor, have been making the case that many people are over saving. Kotlikoff argues that the financial services industry is essentially scaring people into over saving in order to collect fees. The fright factor is evident in the T. Rowe Price survey, where those still at work expressed far more anxiety than those who have reached retirement and found it to be less financially challenging than they may have been led to believe.

Half of workers believe they will have to reduce their standard of living in retirement, compared to just 35% of recent retirees who think that way. More workers also believe they will run out of money (22% vs. 14%), and workers are much less likely to believe they will be able to afford health care (49% vs. 70%), the survey shows.

Recent retirees in this survey have median assets of $473,000. That includes investable assets plus home equity minus debt. Home equity is a big part of their holdings at $191,000. They have just 52% of investable assets in stocks and asset allocation mutual funds, and are playing it fairly safe with 31% in cash.

How are they managing on pre-retirement income that falls short of most planners’ models? A third are working at something or looking for work, and to augment Social Security and pension income they are drawing down their savings by an average of 4% a year, which is a rate that many planners consider reasonable.

But the real source of new retiree satisfaction may be their genuine appreciation for a downsized life: 85% say they do not need to spend as much in order to be happy and 65% feel relieved to no longer be trying to keep up with the Joneses. In addition, they embrace flexibility with 60% saying they would rather adjust their spending to maintain their portfolio than maintain their spending at the expense of their portfolio. With that attitude, almost any retiree can feel good about their life.

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