Retirement Readiness: How Do You Compare to Other Americans?

By Markets Fool.com


Source: Pallspera.com

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Everyone wants to retire rich -- or at least financially independent. However, rising housing costs, health care expenses, and the risk of inflation all can make it harder to live the lifestyle you want in retirement. With millions of baby boomers approaching retirement, it's important to know if you're as well-prepared as you think you are.

Here are three categories that can have a major impact on your ability to be independent in retirement, with some statistics you can use to see how you compare. While everyone's situation is unique, knowing where you stand in these important categories can help you be as prepared as possible for the future.

Homeownership and wealth
There is a strong correlation between being a homeowner and having a decent nest egg. According to a study from Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, homeowners50 and older are more likely to have higher net worth than those who rent, even when home equity is excluded:


Source: Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies report.

As you can see, homeowners are far more likely to have saved and invested, as compared to those who rent. One shouldn't confuse correlation withcausation -- those who rent often don't have the financial means to buy, and it's not the act of owning a home that has led to the additional savings. Nevertheless, the difference in median total wealth between homeowners and renters is substantial.

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Homeownership debt levels
While homeownership generally correlates with a good financial situation, the Harvard studyhighlighted a disturbing trend: debt levels for homeowners -- especially those over 50 -- has risen in recent years.


Source: Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies report.

Debt in and of itself isn't necessarily bad, but there's strong evidence to support that those who enter retirement with a mortgage are more likely to be financially burdened:


Source: Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies report.

As you can see, a mortgage is more likely to be a financial burden as you age.

A bigger concern here? Data from the Social Security Administration shows that a higher percentage of retiree earnings is coming from work, and not pension benefits, retirement savings, or other investments. Carrying a mortgage into retirement could be driving this trend, and likely increases the chance that you'll have to work in retirement.

Deal with debt before retirement
While carrying some debt into retirement isn't a death sentence, it's definitely not ideal, and can add significant stress and reduce your quality of life, especially if it requires you to continue working. Paying that debt off before retirement will likely require sacrifices in other places, but considering that most people's income drops notably in retirement, you may be better off making the sacrifice today while still drawing a paycheck.

Refinancing can be attractive, but be careful with this choice if it means extending your mortgage years into the future just to lower your payment. The best way to determine if a refinance makes sense is simply whether or not it will reduce the amount of money you pay in total. If it doesn't, it may not be a good deal to lower your monthly payment, only to end up paying more over the term.

Furthermore, also be careful about using your home equity to pay off other forms of debt, and for the same reason. Again, look at the total cost over the term, and find the cheapest total cost option to reduce debt (particularly high-interest debt). That might even mean mean getting a personal loan from your bank. The point is, explore all your options, and don't just assume that one way may be the best. Do the math based on the total cost over the full term, and go with the one that costs the least in real money.

70% of Baby Boomers will need it, but less than 33% are preparing for it
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 70% of people who reach age 65 will need long-term care at some point in their lives. However, less than one-third of those over 50 have begun saving for it:


Images from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Medicare doesn't pay for long-term care, and in-home care can cost hundreds of dollars per day:


Image source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

A single event, such as a fall -- the No. 1 cause of injury to those over 65 -- can result in lost mobility and a lengthy recovery, quickly eating into savings and retirement accounts.

Savings isn't the only way to prepare for this potential cost: Long-term care insurance is an option to consider, as is a life insurance policy that can be converted to pay for long-term care. Depending on your age and current health, this might be your best option.

Making the best choices, and being prepared
Life is full of uncertainty, and all any of us can do is be as prepared as we can. If you're lucky enough to be ahead of the game in the areas listed in this article, that's great. If you're not, don't give up hope.

The only thing any of us can do is stay focused on what we can control. No matter how close or far away retirement is, you can do something today to help prepare yourself for it.

The article Retirement Readiness: How Do You Compare to Other Americans? originally appeared on Fool.com.

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