MONEY retirement planning

The Single Biggest Threat To Your Retirement

Mirror
Shawn Gearhart—Getty Images

You might think a stock market slump or a shaky economy pose the biggest danger to your retirement. But the biggest threat may be looking back at you in the mirror.

There’s no shortage of things that can jeopardize your retirement security. Market slumps, job layoffs, medical expenses, an unanticipated spike in inflation, unexpected financial obligations…the list goes on and on. But as scary as these threats may be, they don’t represent the biggest danger to your retirement security. That would be…

You.

Yes, that attractive devil staring back at you in the mirror every morning.

That’s not to say the other hazards I’ve mentioned can’t diminish your retirement prospects. They can. But the danger we ourselves pose to our retirement security can be more insidious if only because we’re not as likely to be aware of it.

So how, exactly, do we undermine our own retirement success? Here are the main ways, followed by advice on how you can limit self-inflicted damage.

*We have a fear of commitment. I’m not talking relationships here, but the difficulty we have in starting to plan for retirement and, more specifically, beginning a savings regimen early on and sticking with it throughout our career. The latest stats from the Bureau of Economic Analysis show that the U.S. savings rate today hovers just below 6% of disposable income, less than half where it stood in the early 1970s. Even among people earning $100,000 or more, only about a third contribute the max to their 401(k). This reluctance to save isn’t totally surprising. After all, our brains are hard-wired for immediate gratification. The sleek car or fancy duds we can have right now are more appealing to us than financial security down the road.

*We’re too emotional. Just when we should be thinking with our heads, we too often go with our guts. Prime example: When the markets are booming, we feel more ebullient, which makes us more apt to underestimate the risk in stocks and load up on them. After a crash, our ebullience turns to gloom, leading us to overestimate the risk we face and flee stocks for the short-term safety of bonds and cash.

*We don’t follow through. Even when we take the time and effort to come up with a coherent strategy, such as building a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds that jibes with our appetite for risk, we then sabotage our efforts by failing to adhere to our plan. We know that different returns for different asset classes will knock our portfolio’s balance out of whack over time. Still, we don’t bother to periodically rebalance our holdings to bring them back to their proper proportions. Similarly, even if go to the trouble to go to a good online retirement calculator to figure out how much we need to save to have a decent shot at a secure retirement, we often fail to monitor our progress and make periodic adjustments. Retirement is a multi-decade journey. You can’t set your course once and go on autopilot for 30 years.

*We focus on the wrong things. Instead of focusing on the most important aspects of retirement planning—Am I saving enough? Do I have the right mix of stocks and bonds? How should my spouse and I coordinate claiming Social Security to get more in benefits?—we get mired in the weeds, poring over performance charts for the funds that have the highest returns or endlessly researching exotic new investments that purport to provide more diversification in our portfolios. News flash: In the long run, the single most important thing you can do to improve your retirement prospects is save more. If you focus first on that and then turn your attention to building a simple mix of low-cost stock and bond index funds, you’ll have laid the groundwork for a secure retirement.

Fortunately, it’s possible, if not to completely eliminate, then at least mitigate the threat we pose to ourselves when it comes to retirement planning. We do have a natural tendency to spend, but behavioral research shows that we may be more likely to save for the future if we feel some sort of link with our future selves. One way to establish that link is to check out the Face Retirement tool in RDR’s Retirement Toolbox, which uses age-morphing technology to “introduce” you to your future self. Once you’ve made that connection, you may find it easier to set aside resources today to help the you of tomorrow.

Similarly, you can prevent emotions from wreaking havoc with your retirement by adopting a more disciplined approach to planning. Writing down a savings target—10% to 15% is reasonable—will make you more likely to adhere to it than a mere mental note to yourself to try to put some money away. Sign up for your 401(k) plan and elect to have that target percentage deducted from your paycheck, and boom! You’re overcoming both the fear to commit and the failure to follow through. Set an annual date—your birthday, day after Thanksgiving, whenever—to rebalance your retirement portfolio and check your progress with an online retirement planning calculator, and you’re doing an even better job on the follow-through front

The reality is that today the onus is increasingly on you to provide for your security in retirement. So the more you’re able to turn yourself into an asset that enhances your future financial prospects rather than a threat that diminishes them, the more secure and enjoyable a retirement you’re likely to achieve.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. He previously wrote the Ask the Expert column for MONEY and CNNMoney. You can reach him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

MONEY 401(k)s

Why Your 401(k) Is Missing $273,000

Egg with hole in it
Mats Silvan—Getty Images/Flickr Open

If the 401(k) system worked as advertised, the typical retiree would have $373,000, one study finds. The reality: $100,000.

It’s no secret that America’s 401(k) system has a few flaws. But a new paper from the Boston College Center for Retirement Research shows just how far the system may be falling short.

The research, based on triennial survey data collected by Federal Reserve economists, found that the typical 401(k) balance for middle-income Americans preretirees—those between 55 and 65—was just $100,000. Based on current annuity prices, that amount would give you a retirement income of only $500 a month, a sum that would be eroded each year by inflation. Since “the typical household holds virtually no financial assets outside of its 401(k),” as the study notes, the average 401(k) plan isn’t likely to provide much of a supplement to Social Security.

That’s not what was supposed to happen. If the 401(k) system had worked as well in reality as it did in theory, those same workers would have $373,000 saved, or $273,000 more, according the study.

To reach that figure, researchers assumed a middle-income worker who turned 60 in 2013 began saving in 1982, at age 29. The worker contributed 6% to his or her 401(k) while receiving a 3% company match and invested in a portfolio split evenly between stocks and bonds—all seemingly reasonable assumptions.

So what happened to that missing $273,000?

The answer is that 401(k) balances have been eroded by a combination of unnecessary fees, poor plan design, and bad—or perhaps just desperate—decisions by savers.

Here’s where the money went:

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 1.55.26 PM

Fees: As the Center’s illustration shows, a big chunk of that missing money, some $59,000, went to Wall Street. The study’s analysis was based on the average fee paid to portfolio managers who oversee 401(k) mutual funds. Clearly, fund managers need to be paid something. But 401(k) investors are almost certainly being charged too much. Across the 401(k) universe, the average stock fund investor hands over fees amounting to 0.74% a year to fund managers, largely because they’re invested in actively managed funds. By contrast, the average stock index fund costs just 0.12%. The upshot: Most of that $59,000 is unnecessary cost.

Withdrawals: Another $78,000 is lost to so-called leakage—essentially, investors yanking money out of the plan. The Center for Retirement Research cited another study by Vanguard Group, which found that on average Vanguard plans leaked about 1.2% of assets a year, although that figure may be low, since Vanguard tends to work with large plans with wealthier employees who are less likely to cash out. It’s difficult to tell why investors aren’t sticking with the program. But it appears that roughly half the time investors simply cash the money out, while about a quarter of the time they qualified for a “hardship withdrawal,” such as a medical or housing expense.

Inadequate saving: Finally, there’s the problem of investor behavior. Most workers don’t save enough, or make “intermittent” contributions. Others failed to sign up or lacked the opportunity to do so, especially earlier in their careers—the “immature” system problem. Congress attempted to boost savings rates with the 2006 Pension Protection Act, which made it easier for employers to default new workers into 401(k) plans. As a result, many young people entering the workforce today are enrolled automatically. But there is still room for improvement. Many plans start workers saving at just 3%, not the 6% or higher rate that would lead to a larger balance—perhaps as much as $373,000.

What to make of all this? It looks like Wall Street, workers themselves and the design of the 401(k) all share part of the blame. “Surely, the system could function more efficiently,” the Center’s study says. Hard to argue with that.

More on 401(k)s from MONEY’s Ultimate Retirement Guide:
Why Is a 401(k) Such a Good Deal?
How Much Should I Put in My 401(k)?
How Should I Invest My 401(k)?

MONEY Savings

Our Retirement Savings Crisis—and the Easy Solution

Skinny piggy bank
Barry Blackman—Tarhill Photos Inc./CORBIS

The numbers show we face a major savings shortfall. But there's a simple way out if we act now.

Data can be misleading. Mark Twain reminded us: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” Yet more often than not sets of numbers tell a compelling story, and that is the case with 29 charts recently compiled by Vox Media.

Start with this data point: the savings rate in the U.S. will be about 4.1% this year, which ranks 17th among 24 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. It’s a slight number next to savings rates like 13.1% in Switzerland and 9.9% in Germany. It’s also a shadow of the 10% or better savings rate we enjoyed in the U.S. 40 years ago. And consider this: Our savings rate is only this high now because of a renewed focus on putting money away and paying down debt since the Great Recession. It had been running at about 2.5% before the financial crisis.

This low savings rate explains at least part of our retirement savings crisis. Some 36% of workers have saved less than $1,000. That includes workers in their first year of full-time employment. So it’s not quite as bad as it sounds. Still, 69% have saved less than $50,000 and just 11% have saved more than $250,000.

Looking at folks already retired, the numbers don’t change much: 29% have saved less than $1,000 and 17% have saved more than $250,000. These are bleak readings. Experts estimate that you’ll need to bank eight to 12 times final pay in order to retire comfortably. If you peak at a salary of $75,000 a year, you will need a nest egg equal to $600,000 to $900,000.

The current generation of retirees has a big advantage that helps explain how they are getting by on so little savings: many collect a traditional defined-benefit pension, which guarantees lifetime income, in addition to Social Security. Three decades ago, 38% of private sector workers had such a pension while 17% had a defined-contribution plan like a 401(k). Those figures have reversed. Today, 14% have a traditional pension while 42% have a 401(k) or similar plan.

This means individuals are becoming increasingly responsible for their own retirement security. Yet we are doing little to prepare them. Financial concepts are not widely taught in schools in the U.S., where 15-year-olds recently tested in the middle of the pack for financial literacy—behind Latvia and Poland, and more importantly behind nations like Australia and New Zealand, where financial education is a government priority.

We’re not teaching kids about money at home either. Teens’ top source of money is gifts from friends and relatives. The share that holds a summer job is down 50% the last 20 years even though the value of summer work goes well beyond learning how to save and budget.

These data points suggest a downward spiral of sorts: we don’t save enough even though we are more responsible than ever for our individual financial well being, and we aren’t doing enough to break the trend among younger generations that will have even less of a safety net. Much of the issue would disappear if individuals simply bumped up their savings rate to at least 10% (better yet, 15%) and young people started early and let compound growth over an additional 10 or 15 years do the heavy lifting for them. Forget anything the critics say: financial education can change that. Until then, though, only households in the top 40% of net worth (at least $164,000) can expect their kids to have as much wealth as the parents. These numbers don’t lie.

Do you need help getting your retirement planning off the ground? Email makeover@moneymail.com for a chance at a free makeover from a financial pro and a story in Money magazine.

MONEY retirement income

Boomers Are Hoarding Cash in Their 401(k)s—Here’s a Better Strategy

Paul Blow

Yes, you need a cash reserve in retirement, but you can go overboard in the name of safety. Here's how to strike the right balance.

As you close in on retirement, it’s crucial to minimize the risk of big losses in your portfolio. Given how expensive traditional safe havens, such as blue chips and high-quality bonds, have become, that’s tricky to do today. So for many pre-retirees, the go-to solution is more cash.

How much cash is enough? Many savers seem to believe that today’s high market valuations call for a huge stash—the average investor has 36% in cash, up from 26% in 2012, according to a recent study by State Street. The percentage is even higher for Baby Boomers (41%), who are approaching retirement—or already there.

That may be too much of a good thing. Granted, as you start to withdraw money from your retirement savings, having cash on hand is essential. But if you’re counting on your portfolio to support you over two or more decades, it will need to grow. Stashing nearly half in a zero-returning investment won’t get you to your goals.

To strike the right balance between safety and growth, focus on your actual retirement needs, not market conditions. Here’s how.

Safeguard your income. If you have a pension or annuity that, along with Social Security, covers your essential expenses, you probably don’t need a large cash stake. What you need to protect is money you’re counting on for income. Calculate your annual withdrawals and aim to keep two to three years’ worth split between cash and short-term bonds, says Marc Freedman, a financial planner in Peabody, Mass.  That lets you ride out market downturns without having to sell stocks, giving your investments time to recover.

This strategy is especially crucial early on. As a study by T. Rowe Price found, those who retired between 2000 and 2010—a decade that saw two bear markets—would have had to reduce their withdrawals by 25% for three years after each drop to maintain their odds of retirement success.

Budget for unknowns. You may be able to anticipate some extra costs, such as replacing an aging car. Other bills may be totally unexpected—say, your adult child moves back in. “People tend to forget to build in a reserve for unplanned costs,” says Henry Hebeler, head of AnalyzeNow.com, a retirement-planning website.

In addition to a two- to three-year spending account, keep a rainy-day fund with three to six months of cash. Or prepare to cut your budget by 10% if you have to.

Shift gradually. “For pre-retirees, the question is not just how much in cash, but how to get there,” says Minneapolis financial planner Jonathan Guyton. Don’t suddenly sell stocks in year one of retirement. Instead, five to 10 years out, invest new savings in cash and other fixed-income assets to build your reserves, Guyton says. Then keep a healthy allocation in stocks—that’s your best shot at earning the returns you’ll need, and you can replenish your cash account from those gains.

MONEY 401(k)s

Why Your 401(k) May Only Return 4%

Faucet dripping coins
peepo—Getty Images

The biggest dilemma in retirement investing may be how hard it will be to grow our savings in the next decade.

There have been a lot of predictions from professionals lately about what kind of returns we can expect on our investments, and it doesn’t look good. In June PIMCO bond guru Bill Gross announced at the Morningstar conference (and subsequently to almost every media outlet in existence) that a close-to-zero interest rate was the “new neutral.” Gross envisions a market where bonds return just 3% to 4% a year on average, while stocks return a modest 4% to 5%.

Gross’s forecast echoes that of a number of other investment experts, including Ray Dalio, the head of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, who called this post-Recession era we are in “the boring years,” during which investors are likely to earn returns of just 3% for bonds and 4% for equities.

These low-return predictions are based, in part, on diminished expectations for the U.S. economy, with the IMF recently warning that our GDP growth may get stuck at 2% for the long term unless Washington adopts significant reforms.

A 4% return would be a huge decline from the historical performance of the U.S. stock market, which has earned an average annual 10% over the last 40 years. Many financial planners still use 8% to 10% as the expected return for stocks in 401(k)s and other investment portfolios. All of which presents a real predicament for those of us in the middle of our careers who have been assuming strong growth will carry us over the finish line.

You see, the real benefit of starting to invest early, the reason people in their 20s are exhorted to open retirement accounts, has always been the power of compounding in the last 10 or so years of a 40 year horizon—the hockey stick uptick on a line graph. But in order to experience that exhilarating growth curve, you need to earn an average annual return in the high single digits, not the low single digits. Compounding simply doesn’t have as much power if you start off earning 10% for 20 years and then earn only 4% for the second 20 years.

If these predictions come true—and I hope that they won’t—it will be much more difficult to make money off of money in the future. This will impact just about everybody age 40 or older: current retirees and people living off fixed incomes, those hoping to retire in five to ten years, and those in mid-career who will need to rethink their strategy moving forward.

The only real solution, as far as I can tell, is to save more and spend less. You can try to earn more, but another strange feature of this recovery-that-doesn’t-feel-like-a-recovery is that while unemployment has dropped, wages have remained stagnant. Besides, depending on your tax bracket, you would have to earn a lot more to get to the same amount after taxes that you could put aside by saving.

So while the investment pundits are making their predictions and coining their phrases, allow me to offer my own: we may now be entering the era of the New Frugal. After three decades of a declining personal savings rate, from 10% in the 1970s to 1% in the 2000s, the financial crisis of 2008 brought savings back up above 5% where it continues to hover. My prediction is that if stock market returns become stagnant, we might continue to see a reduction in consumption and an increase in savings.

What this all means for the economy as a whole I will leave to the experts to ponder. All I know is that if I can no longer expect a 10% average annual return on my retirement fund, I’m going to be a heck of a lot more conservative about how much I spend.

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

MONEY Ask the Expert

The Secret To Saving For Retirement When You Have Nothing Saved At All

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am a 52-year-old single mother. I have NO savings at all for any kind of retirement. What can I do? Where should I start? I also want to start something for my daughter who is 13. Please, I would really love your help. – Anita, West Long Branch, NJ

A: No retirement savings? Join the crowd. A recent survey by BankRate.com found that 26% of those ages 50 to 65 have nothing at all saved for retirement. But even in your 50s, it’s not too late to catch up or at least improve your situation, says Robert Stammers, director of investor education at the CFA Institute.

“You shouldn’t panic. People who start late have to forge a fiscal discipline, but there are lots of tools you can use to ramp up your savings,” says Stammers, who recently published a guide to the steps to take for a more secure retirement.

First, figure out your retirement goals. When do you want to retire? What kind of lifestyle do you want? What will your biggest expenses be? The answers will determine how much you need to save. If you want to maintain your current living standard, you’ll need to accumulate 10 to 12 times your annual income by 65, according to benchmarks calculated by Charles Farrell, author of Your Money Ratios.

You’ll probably end up with some scary numbers. If you earn $75,000 a year, you might need $750,000 to $900,000 by age 65. That amount would provide 80% of your pre-retirement income, assuming a 5% withdrawal rate. You probably won’t need 100% of your current income, since some spending eases up after you quit working—commuting costs and lunches out—and your taxes may be lower.

If you can live on less than 70% of your pre-retirement income—and many retirees say they live just fine on 66% —you may be able to retire at 65 with a $500,000 nest egg. Delaying retirement till 67 or later can lower your savings goal further to perhaps $400,000. (All these targets assume you’ll also receive Social Security; see what you’re eligible for at SSA.gov.)

Don’t be daunted if these figures seem out of reach. Even getting part-way to the goal can make a big difference in your retirement lifestyle. To get started, find out if you have access to a 401(k)—if you do, enroll pronto and contribute the max. People over 50 are eligible for catch-up contributions, so you can sock away even more than someone younger and you’ll save on taxes. You’ll also likely benefit from an employer match, which is free money. You can use calculators like this one to see how your contributions will grow over time. Someone saving 17% of a $75,000 salary over 15 years will end up with nearly $400,000, assuming an employer match.

If you don’t have a 401(k), then set up an IRA, which will also permit catch-up savings. Still, the contribution limits for IRAs are lower than those for 401(k)s, so you’ll need funnel additional money into a taxable savings account.

To free up cash for this saving program, review your budget and find areas where you can cut. “You’ll need to make some hard decisions about your lifestyle,” says Stammers. Small moves can help, such as downgrading your cable and cellphone plans and using coupons to lower food costs. But to make real savings progress, you’ll need to go after some big costs too. Can you cut your mortgage or rent payments by downsizing or moving to a cheaper neighborhood? Can you trade in your car for a cheaper model?

You can speed up your progress by tucking away any raises or windfalls that you may receive. And think about ways you can bring in more income to save—perhaps you have a room to rent out or you may be able to earn extra cash with a part-time job.

As for your goal of saving for your daughter, it’s admirable, but you need to focus on your own retirement. In the long run, achieving your own financial security will benefit your daughter as well—you won’t need to lean on her when you’re older. And by taking these steps, Stammers says, you’ll also be a good financial role model for her.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

MONEY retirement planning

Get These 4 Big Things Right to Retire in Comfort

Senior woman relaxing in hammock
OJO Images—Getty Images

By focusing on a few essentials, you can keep your retirement strategy on track—and reduce stress too.

Take a look at financial websites or switch on a cable TV program and you get the impression that smart retirement planning requires you to stay constantly attuned to every wiggle in the economy and the stock market—and act on it: dump one investment, buy another, re-jigger your entire portfolio…do something, anything, to react to the latest buzz. This, of course, is nonsense.

In a constantly shifting global economy, there are far too many things going on for any person—any organization for that matter—to keep tabs on, evaluate and integrate into a master retirement plan. And then do it over and over again as conditions inevitably shift. It’s just not realistic.

Even if you could stay on top of the overwhelming amount of financial information, it’s still not always clear how best to react to news. For example, a good GDP report can be a plus for stocks if investors take it as a sign that a recovery is gaining traction—or bad if it stirs fears that interest rates will rise causing stock prices to soften.

So given the complexity of today’s financial world, what can you do to better assure you’ll have a secure and comfortable retirement? My advice: Focus on getting these four Big Things right.

1. Set a target—but make sure it’s the correct one. Generally, you’ll do better at any activity—career, health, sports—if you have a goal. Retirement is no exception. The Employee Benefit Research Institute’s latest Retirement Confidence Survey notes that people who’ve tried to calculate their retirement savings needs are more likely to feel very confident about affording a comfortable retirement than those who don’t.

Over the years, however, the target of choice seems to have become Your Number—or the specific amount of money you’ll need to fund a comfortable retirement. But Your Number isn’t a very good benchmark. It gives a false sense of precision, and can often be so big and daunting that it discourages people from saving at all. (What’s the point if I have zero saved and need $1,378,050?)

A better barometer: Keep track of the percentage of your pre-retirement income you’re on pace to replace both from Social Security and draws from your retirement savings. Granted, this figure isn’t exact either. Experts generally say that to maintain your standard of living you should try to replace anywhere from 70% to 90% of your income just prior to retirement. But it’s a number you can more easily get your head around, and more easily translate to an actual lifestyle. Many 401(k) plans include tools that allow you to see how you’re doing on this metric. If yours doesn’t, try the Retirement Income Calculator in RDR’s Retirement Toolbox.

2. Save at a reasonable rate. If you’re still in career mode, setting aside a sufficient amount each year in a 401(k) or other retirement accounts is the single most important thing you can do to improve your retirement prospects. What’s sufficient? I’d say 15% of salary is a good target. But if you can’t manage that, try starting at 10% and working your way up. Employer matching funds count toward that savings figure, so be sure to take full advantage of any employer largesse.

Once you reach retirement, tending your nest egg and managing the amount you spend is key. You don’t want to spend so much that you delete your savings early on; nor do you want to be so miserly that you leave this mortal coil with a big pile of cash behind you.

3. Invest like a smart layman, not a dumb pro. I’m being a bit facetious here to make a point. Professional investors and money managers are not dumb. But many of them do things that I consider dumb, like jumping from one market sector to another in a vain attempt to outguess the market or trading so often that they rack up transaction costs that depress returns.

The smart layman, on the other hand, knows that the two best ways to invest retirement savings are to set an overall mix of stocks and bonds that best reflects your appetite for risk, and then stick to low-cost investments that allow you to pocket more of the returns your savings earn. For guidance on creating a stocks-bonds blend that will generate the returns you’ll need without subjecting you to more downside risk than you can handle, you can check out this Investor Questionnaire.

4. Monitor how you’re doing, but don’t obsess about it. Retirement planning is a long-term proposition. So while you definitely want to be sure you’re making progress toward accumulating the savings you’ll need—or, if you’ve already retired, that you’ll be able to maintain your standard of living—don’t over do it. Re-assessing your progress once or twice a year by going to a retirement income calculator like the one highlighted in RDR’s Retirement Toolbox is probably sufficient.

Constant check-ups may make you more likely to tinker with (or, worse yet, dramatically overhaul) your investments or your plans. This urge to make changes is especially strong during periods of upheaval in the economy and the markets. And changes made on the fly or precipitated by an emotional reaction to duress often do more harm than good.

That said, there can be times when adjustments are called for. But when they are, you’ll typically do better by making small changes and then later re-assessing whether you need to do more rather than going with a dramatic move that could knock you even farther off course.

MORE FROM REAL DEAL RETIREMENT

Why You Shouldn’t Obsess About A Market Crash

Why I Cried When Berkshire Hathaway Hit $200,000 a Share

5 Tips For Charting Your Retirement Lifestyle

MONEY retirement planning

The One Retirement Question You Must Get Right

Man slamming his head into chalkboard of theorems in frustration
Getty Images

Figuring out how big a nest egg you need is a huge financial planning challenge. Here are some helpful tips from an expert who retired at 50.

How much money do you need to retire? This is one of the most difficult questions in all of financial planning. Countless words are written, endless fees are charged, and plenty of sleep is lost, just trying to answer it!

But I’ll tell you a secret—a truth that none in financial services and few in the financial media will admit. We don’t know how much you need to retire! Beyond some broad ranges that have worked in the past, it’s practically impossible to calculate the precise amount of money needed to carry you through a retirement lasting decades or more into the future.

Why? Because, in addition to predicting a host of smaller factors, computing how much you need to retire requires pinning down two huge and essentially unknowable variables: the length of your life, and the real return on your investments. (That’s the actual return, after inflation.)

If you misjudge your life expectancy by even a few years, you could potentially die broke, or with tens of thousands of unspent dollars on the table. If you misgauge your real rate of return by just 1% (and the pros miss it by more than that, all the time), the error in a half-million dollar portfolio over a 30-year retirement will be about $175,000—one-third of the starting value, and a lot of money to go missing!

So there can be no precise answer to this question. And, yet, you must answer it, in some fashion, if you don’t want to go on working forever. So where do you begin?

As I’ve written before, knowing your expenses is an essential first step to retirement planning. You simply must know what it costs you to live each month, in order to get any sense for what you must save to retire.

From that monthly expense number you can subtract any guaranteed, inflation-adjusted income that you are certain to receive in retirement: Social Security for many of us, pensions for a fortunate few, and annuities for those who buy them.

Your remaining expenses must be funded from your investment portfolio. The traditional approach has been the 4% Rule, which states that you can withdraw 4% of your portfolio in the first year, then adjust that withdrawal amount for inflation each year, without fear of running out over the course of a 30-year retirement. However, some experts say this rule is too optimistic for the current difficult economic times, with low interest rates and high market valuations. On the other hand, if you retire in better economic times, or if you choose to annuitize your assets, the rule might be too conservative. (You can find online tools that will let you see the impact of using different economic assumptions—I mention three of the best retirement calculators in this article.)

Boiling down all the research papers, case studies, and opinions that I have read on this topic—and I read about it nearly every day—I can tell you this: The safe withdrawal rates from your retirement savings probably range from about 5% on the optimistic side to about 3% on the conservative side.

That means, for example, if your living expenses not covered by guaranteed inflation-adjusted income were $3,000 a month in retirement, then you would need between $720,000 in savings on the optimistic side, to $1.2 million on the conservative side, to provide for your lifestyle over a several-decade retirement.

Thus if your savings were in that range you could consider retiring. But there is more to it than that, especially for an early retiree. You would also need to factor in the risk that you would run low, and your ability to do something about it. That risk would be a function of the economic environment you retire into, and the longevity factors in your family. The ability to do something about it would be a function of your age and health at retirement, your professional skills, and your lifestyle flexibility.

In the end, there is no simple answer to the question “Do I have enough to retire?” But, there is a range of possibilities, based on historical data and your own risks and capabilities. And, even after you’ve made the retirement decision, you still need to assess and drive your retirement, especially in the early years. So, once you’ve started on the retirement journey, don’t fall asleep at the wheel!

Darrow Kirkpatrick is a software engineer and author who lived frugally, invested successfully, and retired in 2011 at age 50. He writes regularly about saving, investing and retiring on his blog CanIRetireYet.com. This column appears monthly.

MONEY 401(k)s

Ignore This Savings Plan at Your Peril

Workers often think signing up for their 401(k) is all they need to do. But millions fail to enroll right away or raise their contributions, and they'll pay a heavy price.

Call them victims of inertia. These are folks who are slow to sign up for their employer-sponsored savings plan or who, once enrolled, don’t check back for years. Their numbers are legion, and new research paints a grim picture for their financial future.

More than a third of 401(k) plan participants have never raised the percentage of their salary that they contribute to their plan, and another 26% have not made such a change in more than a year, asset manager TIAA-CREF found. The typical saver stashes away just 8% of income—about half what financial planners recommend. Without escalating contributions, these workers will never save enough.

More than half of plan participants have not changed the way their money is invested in more than a year—including a quarter that have never changed investments, the research shows. This suggests many are not rebalancing yearly, as is generally advised, and that many others are not paying attention to their changing risk profile as they age.

At companies without automatic enrollment, a quarter of workers fail to enroll in their 401(k) for at least a year and a third wait at least six months, TIAA-CREF found. These delays may not seem like a big deal. But the lost returns over a lifetime of growth add up. Based on annual average returns of 6% and a like contribution rate over 30 years, a worker who enrolls immediately will accumulate nearly double that of a worker who starts two years later. Even a mere six-month delay is the difference between, say, $100,000 and $94,000, according to the research.

Employer-sponsored 401(k) and similar plans have emerged as most people’s primary retirement savings accounts: 42% of workers say it is their only savings pool and a similar percentage say the plans are so critical they would take a pay cut to get a higher company match, according to a Fidelity survey. So any level of mismanagement is troublesome.

There is a bright spot, however—younger workers have been quicker to catch on. Millennials are the most likely group to boost their percentage contribution after each pay raise, and among millennials who do not boost the percentage, 23% say it is because they already contribute the maximum. Millennials are also most likely to check back in and adjust their investment mix.

That’s not entirely good news. In general, millennials are not investing enough in stocks, which have the highest long-term growth potential. But it reinforces the emerging picture of a generation that understands what Baby Boomers and Gen Xers were slow to grasp: financial security is not a birthright. Millennials will need to save early and often—on their own—and pay attention for 30 or 40 years to enjoy a happy ending.

MONEY retirement planning

3 Easy Moves That Can Boost Your Nest Egg By 60%

201412_RET_NESTEGG
Brad Wilson—Getty Images

These relatively painless investing tweaks can put you on the path to a secure retirement, even if you just do one or two of them.

Think you’ve got to come up with a big score or magnificent coup to boost the size of your nest egg and dramatically improve your retirement prospects? You don’t. A few simple tweaks can often make the difference between scraping by and living large after you retire.

In fact, you can put yourself on the path to a much more enjoyable and secure retirement with just three relatively easy moves: saving a little more, paring investment expenses and delaying retirement a bit. Here’s an example.

Let’s say you’re 30 years old, earn $45,000 a year, get annual raises of 2% and contribute 10% of your pay to a 401(k) or similar plan. And let’s further assume that your retirement savings earn a 7% annual return before expenses, for a net return of 5.5% after investment fees of 1.5% a year. Based on that scenario, by age 65 you would have a nest egg valued at just under $600,000.

Not bad, and certainly more than what most people age 65 have accumulated today. But you can put yourself in a much better position at retirement time if you make the three adjustments I mentioned.

First, let’s see how much saving more can help. If you increase your savings rate from 10% a year to 12%, that move alone would boost the age-65 value of your nest egg from just under $600,000 to nearly $715,000. That’s a gain of roughly $115,000, or almost 20%, right there.

Next up: investment fees. With the multitude of index funds, ETFs and other low-cost choices that are around these days, paring annual investment expenses is eminently doable. So, for the sake of this example, let’s assume you cut annual fees by just 0.5% a year from 1.5% to 1%, for an after-expense return of 6% instead of 5.5%. That reduction in expenses alone would add another 10% or so to the age-65 401(k) balance, pushing it from a little under $715,000 to nearly $790,000.

Now for the third move: delaying retirement a few years. This single adjustment has a two-barreled effect on your nest egg. Postponing gives you a chance to throw more savings into your retirement accounts and it gives the money in those accounts more time to grow before you start drawing on it. Waiting three more years to exit the workforce in the scenario above would bump the age-65 value of your nest egg from just under $790,000 to just over $975,000, just short of seven-figure territory.

By the way, postponing your job-exit date can also improve your retirement outlook in another way: Each year between the ages of 62 and 70 that you delay claiming benefits, the size of your Social Security check increases roughly 7% to 8%, and that’s before annual adjustments for inflation. To see how different claiming ages might affect your Social Security benefit (and your spouse’s, if you’re married), check out the calculators in RealDealRetirement’s Retirement Toolbox.

In short, making these three moves combined would have boosted the value of your nest egg in this scenario from a little less than $600,000 to almost $1 million, an increase of some 60%. That’s pretty impressive.

Of course, you may not be able to replicate these results exactly. If you’re getting a late start in your savings regimen, increasing your savings rate may not translate to as sizeable an increase in your eventual balance. Similarly, if you do most of your saving through a 401(k) plan that doesn’t include low-cost index funds and such–although most plans do these days—you may not be able to cut investment expenses as much as you’d like. Even if you’re able to pare expenses, there’s no guarantee that each percentage point reduction will mean a percentage-point increase in return, although there’s plenty of evidence that funds with lower costs do generally perform better.

And while many people may want to work a few extra years to fatten retirement accounts, health problems or company downsizing efforts may not allow you the choice of staying on the job a few extra years.

Still, the point is that these three moves, individually or combined, can likely improve your retirement outlook at least to some extent. And they’re much more effective at enhancing your retirement prospects than the move that many mistakenly gravitate to: investing more aggressively, which is a tactic that can backfire and leave you worse off.

So re-assess your retirement planning to see which of these moves makes the most sense for you. If doing just one gives you the boost you need to assure a secure retirement, fine. But if just one won’t do it, try to do two, or all three. Come retirement time, you’ll be glad you made these tweaks.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. He previously wrote the Ask the Expert column for MONEY and CNNMoney. You can reach him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

MORE FROM REAL DEAL RETIREMENT:

Gut Check: Will You Be Prepared If Stocks Plummet?

5 Tips For Charting Your Retirement Lifestyle

Courage: And 3 Other Qualities You Need To Better Plan For Retirement

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser