Hey Boomers, Get a Grip

I get it boomers, honest, I do. Im a baby boomer myself and have been traveling down the long and winding road to retirement for nearly 40 years. At some point Ill hang up my keyboard and& then what? Yes, its a bit unnerving to think Ill probably live more than 30 years after the paychecks stop and that my lifestyle will depend upon whatever I have saved up to that point. Will it be enough? How healthy will I be? What about my spouse?

Retirement is different for our generation. Not because the majority of us wont be getting steady income from a pension--most current retirees dont have one. Even at their peak back in the 1970s, defined benefit plans covered less than a third of the workforce. Government red tape and the costs associated with these plans made them so expensive companies switched to other types such as 401(k)s.

Boomers shouldnt go around bemoaning the fact that most of us wont have pension income to rely on, this was also the exception rather than the rule for previous generations.

And, yes its true that whether you have a 401(k), 403(b), 457 or IRA you are personally responsible for deciding how to invest the money in your accountbut thats also true for younger workers. While this is a good argument for requiring that every high school senior attend a class on personal finance, its not a reason to trash these plans. In fact, more Americans are covered today by some type of retirement plan than ever before.

I also understand that while we were over indulging our kids, we short-changed our retirement accounts. Yeah, we should have saved more.

But previous generations werent super savers, either. Their biggest investment was their homes, but they got lucky. Just as many were thinking of downsizing, a huge generation of new parents (baby boomers) came along needing places to raise their own children. In part, that demand helped drive up the price of real estate in the 80s and 90s, conveniently providing millions of new retirees with padded nest eggs.

The reason retirement is more of a challenge for baby boomers is two-fold. One factor is our ever-increasing life expectancy. Since the turn of this century, the number of individuals living to age 100 or more increased 43%, our parents thought theyd be lucky to reach age 85. Boomers will need to cover living expenses well into our 90s.

The difference between 20 years in retirement and 30 plus years is significant. More time can mean a bigger inflation impact, something baby boomers are acutely sensitive to thanks to what we experienced in the 70s and early 80s. More time also gives Wall Street more opportunities to wreak havoc on your portfolio. There is more time to develop physical and mental disabilities and incur costs associated with treatment.

The second major challenge facing boomers is that we, in general, grew up in relative abundance. Sure, some of us could complain that our first bike was a hand-me-down or preferred a family vacation that didnt involve a tent in Aunt Mabels backyard, but we never experienced rationing and the level of personal sacrifice that the Great Depression and World War II required of our parents and grandparents.

In other words, we never learned to do with less.Instead, most of our lives have been spent working our tails off so that we and our families can have more&and more. Our kids didnt watch Mickey Mouse on a black and white TV, we took them to Disneyland to see them live. They got a new bike almost every birthday.  We put pools in our backyards, at least two cars in our garages and giant TVs in our family rooms.

Though it came at a cost, in general, our standard of living has gone in one direction: up. We have little, if any, experience with what life is like when you have to scale back or live within a budget. Nor can we imagine how to do it; its one big scary unknown when it comes to retirement.

According to a three-year survey by Financial Engines, a firm that manages 401(k) plans for employers and also provides investment advice to participants, the key characteristic exhibited by baby boomers approaching retirement is inertia. We are essentially petrified by all of the uncertainty that lies ahead and yet afraid to do a thing about it, lest it be the wrong move.

Emotions are driving their behavior, says Shin Inoue, director of Retiree Services, co-author of the study, and a Gen-Xer. He identified the top four fears:

Uncertainty: How long will I live? Whats going to happen in the financial markets? Can I rely on Social Security? How much will I have to spend on health care?

Fear of Poverty: Concern about running out of money or being a burden on my kids.

Lack of Confidence:  were unsure about how our money should be invested over such a long period of time. Moreover, many boomers feel as if they ought to know this despite the fact that they probably spent the past three decades raising families and working in professions unrelated to finance.

Distrustful of Financial Advisors. Call this Bernie Madoff Syndrome. Since the sensational and negative news get much of the medias attention, we tend to only hear about bad or selfishly-motivated financial professionals. Lets face it, the ones who do pro bono work for the needy, or help clients successfully negotiate the vicissitudes of the markets, dont make headlines.  Baby boomers fear of being taken advantage of or ripped off prevents us from getting the advice we need.

The results?

Paralysis: we become too scared/uncertain/confused/ over who to trust that we dont do anything

Avoidance: we cant bear to think about our financial situation because we dont want to know how bad it is

Misplaced Trust: We ask non-professionals for help, Im going to ask Uncle Henry for help. The machine shop he worked at had a 401(k).

Magical Thinking: The Scarlet OHara approach: It will just work out. I know it will! A popular baby boomer riff on this is, If I need more income, Ill just keep working.

According to Inoue, the first step to overcoming these fears is to realize that youre not alone; over the next 19 years, there will be more than 70 million boomers retiring.

According to Financial Engines, there are several characteristics boomers should include in their retirement income plan in order to feel comfortable:

1. Flexibility. Dont do anything that locks you in, says Inoue. Because the future is uncertain, you want the ability to adapt and make changes.

2. Safety. You dont want to run out of money. Its all about balance; sticking your money in a savings account isnt the answer. In order to provide the inflation-adjusted income youll need for a 30-year retirement, your portfolio needs the potential to grow.

3. Fee Transparency. Make sure you know what youre investing in and the services you can expect. If you dont know how much youre getting billed, dont do it, advises Inoue.

4. Help from an Advisor. Its OK to get advice from an expert--the key is to find someone you trust. If you work for a large company, your human resources department might have a list of advisors to recommend or ask your friends for names of those they work with. There should be no charge for an initial visit. Pay attention to the chemistry. Money is an extremely personal issue, you need to feel comfortable with the individual who is going to be investing it for you.

Heading into the unknown is always scary. But it can also be exciting. The key is to have a road map for spending down what youve saved, integrating this with Social Security, and getting real about how much you can afford to spend once you retire. You also need to accept that any plan created today will need periodic adjustments. The fact is,  Yogi Berra was right when he said:

Its hard to make predictions. Especially about the future.

Ms. Buckner is a Retirement and Financial Planning Specialist at Franklin Templeton Investments. The views expressed in this article are only those of Ms. Buckner or the individual commentator identified therein, and are not necessarily the views of Franklin Templeton Investments, which has not reviewed, and is not responsible for, the content. 

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