Personal savings key to retirement liftoff

Kevin Price
Kevin Price

There’s something powerful and serene about watching hot air balloons rise in the morning stillness, their burners propelling colorful shapes into the atmosphere. Retirement is a lot like untethered flight — life’s possibilities are limited only by your imagination and where the wind takes you.

At one time, you could count on lifts from a pension, Social Security and Medicare benefits. But you’ll likely need to rely more on your personal savings to fund your dreams once you retire.

However, fully 57 percent of Americans report having less than $25,000 in household savings and investments — excluding homes and defined benefit pensions, which mostly apply to such public employees as teachers and public safety workers. This puts the odds of attaining retirement security at serious risk for most Americans.

The majority of workers can no longer rely on guaranteed lifetime retirement income from a private pension plan. Such plans cover fewer people each year. In 2012, only 18 percent of eligible private-sector workers could count on a pension, down from 35 percent in the early 1990s.

Living within your means and saving more money, ideally in a tax-advantaged way, are tactics that will help your retirement lift off. That means reducing spending, increasing income or both.

For most people, reducing spending is probably the most practical approach. Before cutting expenses, you should have some idea of where your money is going. Look through your bank statements and credit card bills. Note where the big spending items are concentrated: dining out, shopping, vacations and everything else. After you’ve gathered this information, you might be able to cut down on nonessentials — and start adding to your retirement plan.

Originally envisioned as an economic safety net, Social Security was never meant to be a primary source of retirement income. Today, Social Security provides a diminishing source of income for the average American retiree, from a high of 42 percent of total retirement income in 1994 to 37 percent of total retirement income in 2010.

Although no one knows how Social Security will evolve, it’s likely you’ll draw less from it to fund your retirement. The rest will have to come from investment income, earnings and personal savings in your retirement plan.

Health care expenses are increasing for one simple reason: America’s population is aging and older people tend to have more medical needs.

Medicare today is generally regarded as solvent. But due to vast increases in the number of retirees likely to enter the system over the next 10 to 20 years, Medicare likely will need to be reformed.

Contrary to what some believe, Medicare isn’t free or covers all health care costs. You might want to explore alternatives, such as contributing more to your retirement plan or opening a Roth IRA or health savings account, to help pay for increased health care costs.

It’s possible changes to government programs could lead to a reduction in future benefits. One of your best defenses against this could be to boost your savings contributions — and help your retirement take flight.