Alarmed, poor saver? Save thyself

June 11, 2006|By HUMBERTO CRUZ | HUMBERTO CRUZ,TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

I don't have proof. But I get the unmistakable sense that many Americans are coming to terms with the fact their poor savings habits have them headed for trouble -- and it is up to them to straighten themselves out.

My main evidence is a significant attitude change I've noticed whenever I write a column about how little Americans save or how ill-prepared aging baby boomers are for retirement.

For years, such columns have invariably precipitated an avalanche of hate mail, calling me names and blaming Americans' financial troubles on the government, big business, unscrupulous advisers, Wall Street crooks or the media -- anybody and anything but our propensity to live beyond our means and overdose on credit-card debt.

But lately, I've detected far more apprehension and much less inclination to blame others. I'm also hearing more from readers who are alarmed about what they see and taking responsibility for their own futures.

"I am absolutely dismayed," wrote Jon Baker, a reader in California, in an e-mail typical of the vast majority I now receive. "I have relatives, friends and co-workers who are past midlife and have set either nothing or very little aside. I even have a close friend who jokes that his retirement plan is a rocking chair and a room at our place."

I do hope that's a joke, because depending on others is not going to cut it in retirement. People all over the world are realizing that. So says a new study that explored people's attitudes about retirement in 20 places around the world.

One key finding: People no longer believe that governments alone will provide for them in old age, and they prefer providing for their retirement by means of government-enforced personal savings.

"In the advanced economies, there is still a strong view that governments should provide for our old age but little confidence that they will," said the study, funded by the London-based financial firm HSBC and written by the University of Oxford's Institute of Aging. In the less developed countries -- let's learn from them -- "there is an overwhelming acceptance that governments should not and will not look after us in our old age," the study said.

"Overwhelmingly, it is going to be up to the individual," said Ken Dychtwald, a San Francisco gerontologist with the think tank Age Wave, and an adviser to HSBC.

But the survey, based on interviews with more than 21,000 adults in countries that account for 62 percent of the world's population, also found that people "need help in helping themselves. ... They want governments not just to encourage more private savings but to force more private savings," Dychtwald said.

For the first time, research shows support globally "for some form of compulsory savings for retirement," said Sarah Harper, director of the Oxford institute.

I prefer people summon up the discipline to save on their own, just as Jeffrey Hansher has. A 42-year-old teacher in Wisconsin, Hansher has been contributing to his school system's tax-deferred retirement plan since he was 25. Despite a modest salary, he has accumulated "quite a sum for retirement," he told me in an e-mail.

But when Hansher tries to encourage other teachers to do as he has, "I am met with resistance and apathy," he said. (One solution, along the lines of what the HSBC study suggests, would be to mandate participation in such plans.)

Here is one way to save: Ask yourself whether you really need -- or even want -- the latest high-end electronic gadget. Laura Mrachek, a reader from San Antonio, confided that a home-theater system that turned out to be more complicated than she and her husband realized was "the worst buying decision" they ever made.

Her conclusion -- and I don't blame her for it: "All that these high-tech products do is further complicate our already-complicated lives."

That, and bleed our budgets dry.

Humberto Cruz writes for Tribune Media Services.

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