Retirement: the vanishing goal [Commentary]

We are not prepared, financially or emotionally

December 02, 2013|Susan Reimer

It was an accident, really. My saving for retirement.

I was in my 30s when I heard about IRAs, individual retirement accounts, and they sounded like a good idea. I was single. No house. No kids. I could afford to put a couple of thousand away each year.

I didn't think I'd need it, of course. My dad retired from Alcoa with a pension and full medical coverage for him and my mother, and I figured I would retire that way, too. But I thought it might be good to have a little extra money for, I don't know, world travel.

Then my company created a 401k plan and they offered to match my contributions up to a certain amount. Hey, free money? I'm in. So I had some money deducted from my paycheck. I had a house by then, and kids. But, frankly, I never missed that money because I never saw it.

It turns out, these were the most important financial decisions of my life, and I didn't know it. And I almost didn't make them.

I spent more time choosing wallpaper for the kitchen that I did thinking about saving for retirement. Nobody mentioned how critical that money would be because, I guess, nobody expected defined benefit pensions to disappear the way they have.

Now, this close to retirement, I have that breathless feeling of having survived a near-miss. My future was almost a disaster. The fact that it is not is an accident.

That's all we talk about these days, my friends and I. When are you going to retire? Can you afford to retire? What will you do when you retire?

Some are in good shape to retire, of course. Others don't want to stop working. Some, like me, are worried that our industry will collapse, forcing us to the sidelines whether we want to go or not.

According to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey, 9 out of 10 workers 50 or older report being satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their jobs. That means we are happy working and would probably like to continue. Will we be able to? The Employee Benefit Research Institute reports that 70 percent of us will be forced to stop working before 65 — for health reasons.

None of us has a realistic vision for retirement. We think we will spend less, when in fact we don't. We don't realize that Medicare doesn't pay for vision, dental, hearing aides or long-term care, or that a healthy couple retiring at 65 can expect to pay more than $220,000 on health care costs before they die, and that doesn't count long-term care.

One of the biggest unknowns is the kids. Even if they are successfully launched now, that can change in this uncertain economy. They can suffer financial or personal setbacks that can make us feel like we need to step in and help in significant ways.

According to a new Allstate/National Journal poll, 90 percent of Americans, having endured the crash of 2008, are starting to feel confident about paying the bills again. But when asked if they are saving enough for the future and retirement, only 58 percent said yes.

That's because we aren't saving enough. The median savings for those a decade from retirement is $12,000. And a third of those in that group haven't saved a cent. This in the face of calculators that now suggest you have 12 times your annual income in savings before you retire. Twelve times.

When I was casually deciding to save for retirement, there were no such calculators. The numbers 7 percent or 10 percent of your pay were tossed around, but the recommendation to have enough money saved to replace 70 or 80 percent of your income was years away.

The financial realities of retirement are daunting, and they serve to compound the emotional side of the decision to leave our working life behind. For those reasons and more, the traditional retirement age of 65 has no real meaning anymore. It is a finish line that keeps shifting and fading and, perhaps, vanishing.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at and @SusanReimer on

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