Why Your Retirement Won’t Be Like Your Parents’ — and What You Can Do About It

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When retirement rolled around for my parents, they had it licked.

My father, a World War II and Air Force Reserve veteran, got a small monthly military retirement check, along with a pension from his career with the federal government. My mother was a retired teacher with a state pension and Social Security.

Despite their modest salaries during their working years, thanks to a Depression-era frugality they also retired with several hundred thousand dollars in Treasury bills. Those savings only grew after retirement, because their retirement income was not only more than they spent, after years of cost-of-living increases it was more than they made when they were working.

What a difference a generation makes. Things will be vastly different for many baby boomers and generations to follow. To understand why, start with the following video. Then meet me on the other side for more.

Social Security isn’t the problem

Social Security was never intended to be the American worker’s sole retirement plan. Rather, it was designed to keep Americans affected by disability, death of a breadwinner, or old age from starving. Here’s how the father of Social Security, President Franklin Roosevelt, described it in a 1938 radio address:

The (Social Security) Act does not offer anyone, either individually or collectively, an easy life — nor was it ever intended so to do. None of the sums of money paid out to individuals in assistance or in insurance will spell anything approaching abundance. But they will furnish that minimum necessity to keep a foothold; and that is the kind of protection Americans want.

And Social Security still provides that. As you saw in the video above, Social Security won’t be enough to keep me in my house: I pay more in property taxes and insurance on my Florida home in a month than my parents paid in a year. But would Social Security keep me alive? Yes.

If Social Security isn’t the problem, what is?

Balancing on a two-legged stool

For decades, the term “three-legged stool” was used to describe the three necessary ingredients of stable retirement income. The first leg is Social Security, the second an employer-sponsored pension plan, and the third, personal savings.

For my parents and many of their peers, that’s the way it was: three legs, stable retirement. Today, however, one of the legs — employer-sponsored pension plans — has fallen off for many. From a 2010 Forbes article about private employer pension plans: “The Boston College Center for Retirement Research estimates that the number of employees covered by a defined benefit retirement plan (the ones we think of as traditional pension plans) declined from 62 percent in 1983 to 17 percent in 2007.”

With a defined benefit plan, employers shoulder the entire cost. In the past, employees remaining with companies throughout their careers might have expected to receive up to 75 percent of their pre-retirement income for life. A nice leg to have on your retirement stool, but one that’s fading into history.

Many government workers still have generous pension plans. But for how long? Cracks are starting to surface as municipalities begin admitting they’ve made promises they can’t keep. Detroit’s pension plan is underfunded by $3.5 billion — one of the factors that drove the city into bankruptcy. It’s hardly unique. From a recent New York Times story:

In California, where more than 20,000 state and local retirees receive annual pensions of more than $100,000, the cities of San Bernardino, Stockton and Vallejo have filed for bankruptcy. Los Angeles’s public employee pensions are inexorably pushing the city toward bankruptcy — perhaps within four years. Chicago now pays $1 billion each year to its retired teachers alone. In New York City, pension costs have grown to $8 billion from $1.8 billion over the last 12 years.

Same with some unions. The Teamsters’ Central States, Southeast & Southwest Pension Plan recently announced it’s underfunded by about $17 billion. The problem? The plan has only 65,000 union members paying into it, but it’s supporting 212,000 retirees.

As for federal government plans, they could easily fall victim to cost-cutting. Earlier this year, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor issued a press release in response to sequester-related spending cuts. From that release: “Rather than take Border Patrol agents off the job, the president should instead choose to reform the federal employee retirement system so it matches what people get in the private sector.”

The handwriting is on the wall. And it’s no surprise. You can’t expect the millions of Americans losing their private defined benefit plans to fight to keep them alive for taxpayer-supported public employees.

So if Social Security isn’t enough, and the pensions my parents took for granted are fading, what’s left?

Substituting cottage cheese for steak: Defined contribution vs. defined benefit

As traditional income-for-life pension plans disappear from the private sector and get dicier for the public sector and unions, they’re being replaced by 401(k), 403(b) and other types of defined contribution plans. As you already know if you have one, with these plans the employer might offer a match, but they more closely resemble the “personal savings” leg of the stool: You put in your own money, manage it yourself, and if it’s not enough to support you in retirement, that’s your problem.

Replacing a defined benefit, income-for-life plan with a do-it-yourself-and-hope-for-the-best plan is like replacing steak with cottage cheese. They both offer sustenance, but the cottage cheese is a poor substitute.

As I mentioned in the video above, accumulate $500,000 in a 401(k) plan and withdraw what it can safely earn — with today’s low rates, maybe 2 percent — and you’ll pick up an extra $10,000 per year. That’s a far cry from a defined benefit plan that paid 75 percent of a pre-retirement salary for life. And a $500,000 401(k) is a stretch. According to AARP, the average 401(k) balance for plan participants over 55 is now $255,000. Earn 2 percent on that, and you’ll only be adding about $425 per month to your retirement income.

A new leg for your retirement stool

What are current and future retirees going to do? As they always have, the best they can.

First, it’s critical to strengthen the two remaining legs of your retirement stool: Social Security and personal savings.

There are strategies you can use to maximize the bang from your Social Security buck. Start by going to SocialSecurity.gov/MyStatement, where you’ll get a personalized statement showing what you can expect at various retirement ages. Then read a few articles, including “13 Ways to Get More Social Security.” Finally, test various strategies by using free online calculators, like this one from AARP or this one from T. Rowe Price.

The Wall Street Journal recently tested and reviewed five Social Security calculators, some free and some that cost.

As for strengthening your savings, in addition to putting away as much as you can, start exploring options other than insured savings accounts. Check out articles like:

Do alternative investments like real estate, stocks and peer-to-peer lending involve more risk and knowledge than a savings account? You bet. But stick with an insured bank account and your golden years may not be as golden.

When it comes to replacing the missing leg of the retirement stool — an employer-funded pension plan — all you can do is maximize your use of its “cottage cheese” replacement, a 401(k) or similar plan. But as with your personal savings, remember that taking no risk carries a risk of its own. And remember that the plan is your top priority. It’s more important than a new car, vacation or paying for your kids’ college (they have other options).

Finally, add a fourth leg to your retirement stool. Find something you love to do that pays and don’t retire, at least completely. Check out articles like “12 Weird Ways Retirees Make Money,” and develop an interest, hobby or side job that might give you both enjoyment and income. You’re reading mine right now.

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Comments & discussion

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  • Rich Logan

    You shouldn’t be expecting to just use the interest from your investments (401k, for example) – instead you should also be drawing down the principal over time as well. Computing how much of that is not hard – and there are calculators for that. But it gives you an additional revenue that should be considered when calculating total available income.

  • smokey347

    boy does the photo at the top say it all! by the time barry, harry, the wacky witch, et al, get done with the economy there won’t be anything left for americans.

    • Var Enyo

      You guys started this future back with President RayGun and his trickle up economics.

  • transmitterguy

    It doesnt matter how much money you have now, None of it will be worth anything! You will be rich if your home is paid off and you have land to farm food on. Everybody else will be living under bridges and abandoned houses. The economy will be shut down and vandalism will be rampant.