I was discussing the subject of retirement over the long holiday weekend with family. 

There was a lot of talk about Social Security (or the looming lack thereof), the impact(s) of inflation, and how the markets (stock and housing) had boosted prospects, but ultimately decided we weren’t sure when that would happen, we weren’t even positive that it would happen (the so-called “great resignation” notwithstanding), or if it might consist of a gradual slowdown/pullback. Moreover, we really didn’t know what “it” would be like if and when it did happen, or where we might be living even if and when. Finally—it had been a pretty hectic week, after all—I somewhat playfully suggested that the best definition of retirement would be the absence of time-critical deadlines and Zoom meetings. Ah, now that’s something to look forward to!

Retirees%20selfieHowever, and as those who are already ensconced there can attest, retirement has its own set of pressures, and they go well beyond bucket list “bingo.” But the “difficulty” that my family discussion had in actually describing what we would “do” is a real problem in retirement planning. After all, if you don’t know what you are going to “do” (or from where you will be doing it), it’s really hard to develop a plan, certainly not an effective one. Let’s face it, the things we are accustomed to saving for—a car, a house, the kids’ college tuition, a vacation trip—generally are not only things we can envision, they have a very specific price tag—and sometimes a specific deadline.

Now, of course, retirement—more precisely, living in retirement—also has a price tag, if not a specific deadline (though the latter can certainly influence the former). Anyone who has an interest in knowing what that is can turn to any number of readily available calculators capable of revealing that number, or at least a range of numbers. Unfortunately, those disembodied figures don’t shed much light on defining what we’ll get for our money—and even then they tend to be so large that the normal reaction is, “Isn’t there a cheaper model?” (or perhaps a higher assumed return).

The sad reality is that too few take the time to make that calculation before making that decision. In fact, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute/Greenwald & Associates’ 2020 Retirement Confidence Survey, just over 4 in 10 (44%) have (ever) estimated[1] how much income they and your spouses would need each month in retirement—a pretty consistent finding from the RCS, which began asking that question way back in 1993. 

Doubtless some of the reluctance is the sheer complexity of the “ask” (not to mention the variables), the press of more immediate concerns, perhaps even a fear of what the answer will be. For years now, a number of providers have produced an estimate of how much monthly income one’s current account would yield on participant statements, a feature (somewhat) codified in the SECURE Act. That said, and with its many assumptive flaws, I’ve never found that focus particularly useful, though it’s an improvement over the traditional lump sum “need” that most calculators provide, and certainly better than a mere account balance. Personally, I think we’d do a better job of paying that retirement “bill” if participants set an annual target—a budget for retirement, just like we have for the mortgage or the car payment. That would give them a shorter-term target that could still be part of the larger, often apparently unassailable goal.

Too often, retirement savings is a function of what is left over after everything else is paid. And that means that, too often, particularly when things like health care costs, groceries, and filling the tank cost more than we had planned, we not only don’t pay that retirement “bill,” we don’t even see it as overdue. 

Retirement planning needs to start with the “end” in mind, of course—but to be effective it also needs a constructive road map to help chart the way there. 


[1] Worse—and this data point was not in the 2020 RCS—when you ask how people had made some kind of assessment of their retirement income needs, a jaw-droppingly large percentage indicated they… guessed.