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Retirement: It's not all a crapshoot

A new survey shows that doubts about enjoying a comfortable retirement have reached their highest level in 21 years. Here are the factors you can control.

By MSN Money Partner Jul 14, 2011 3:50PM

This post comes from Glenn Ruffenach at partner site SmartMoney.


Want to hear some good news about retirement? You have more control over your future than you think.


So much about retirement planning today is marked by doubt: We don't know whether our savings will see us through old age. We don't know what might happen to Social Security and Medicare. We don't know whether we'll be able to continue to work for as long as we wish to (or need to).


And so we fret -- a lot.


In its most recent retirement confidence survey, the Washington, D.C.-based Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 27% of workers are "not at all confident" about having sufficient funds to live comfortably in later life -- the highest level of gloom in the study's 21-year history.


At their worst, such anxieties can leave people paralyzed. Clark Randall, who heads Financial Enlightenment, a planning firm in Dallas, says he often sees this with his clients: "It's easy to focus on threats they can't control."


And that's the point. If you're caught up in issues that are out of your hands -- interest rates, changes in government programs, the markets -- you're more likely to overlook those parts of retirement planning where you do have control.


So, pop quiz: How many of the following steps -- for which you're the boss -- have you taken?


Setting a budget. It's among the most important steps in planning for later life, but less than half of workers have put pencil to paper, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Why are budgets so critical? Projecting expenses and income can help you pin down your "number," the amount of money you need to save for retirement. (Try MSN Money's retirement calculator.)


You could be pleasantly surprised. "Many people who have been diligent about building a nest egg find they spend less on themselves than they realize," says Brent R. Brodeski, a managing director at Savant Capital Management in Rockford, Ill. Any number of work sheets can simplify the process. See the Department of Labor's "Taking the Mystery out of Retirement Planning" or T. Rowe Price's "Retirement Readiness Guide" (.pdf file). Post continues after video.

Timing Social Security. If you're married, the timing of exactly when each spouse first files for benefits can translate into thousands of dollars gained -- or lost -- in retirement. Rather than simply jumping in the pool at age 62 (the earliest point at which you can grab a check) or trying to sort through a dozen different scenarios, take advantage of a service that can run the numbers for you. One good bet:


Reducing debt. Between 2000 and 2008, the average debt for households headed by a person age 55-plus almost doubled to $66,000, according to Strategic Business Insights, a research firm in Menlo Park, Calif. Again, here's where would-be retirees can take the reins.


Marsha and Chris Blair, 63 and 65, both educators, were saddled with a monthly mortgage of $5,300 on their house just south of San Francisco. Knowing they wanted to travel in retirement, they recently sold it (admittedly, not an easy feat in some markets these days) and moved to a $142,500 home in Yountville, Calif. Their new monthly payment for the land lease, insurance, taxes and cable: under $800. "You have no idea how freeing that is," Marsha says. "The first thing my husband says every time we enter the house is, 'Home, sweet unmortgaged home.'"


Creating a pension. If nothing else, the recent financial meltdown underscores the need for investments that throw off income, regardless of what's happening in the markets. If you're fortunate enough to have an employer pension, great. If not, there's no excuse for failing to buy and hold products -- annuities, dividend-paying stocks, bond funds -- that generate cash.


Managing taxes. No, you can't control tax rates, but you can practice "tax diversification," says Randall, of Financial Enlightenment. Ask yourself: Will virtually all your money in retirement come from your 401k or IRA? If so, those withdrawals will be taxed as ordinary income, and you could be paying as much as 35% to Uncle Sam.


But if you divide your dollars among more buckets -- Roth IRAs, municipal bonds, even real estate -- you have the flexibility to pull funds from different sources at different times. "You don't know what your effective tax rate will be in retirement," Randall says. "That's why you should diversify."


Planning for long-term care. Yes, this is a tough one. But it's also an area where failing to act could prove devastating. Among your options: self-insuring, if you can set aside sufficient funds. Long-term-care insurance, which is complicated and expensive, is another possibility, as are so-called hybrid policies that provide some long-term-care benefits and some life insurance (but perhaps not enough of either). Finally, there's the Community Living Assistance Services and Support Act, the federal government's new insurance program for long-term care (the details are still being ironed out).


While it could be a case of picking your poison, just choosing means you've taken control.


I know: The invariable response is, "But I don't have time." Please. It never fails to amaze me how people will spend weeks planning a visit to Disneyland with the grandchildren but won't take a few hours to assemble a retirement budget that could easily last 30 years.


Believe me: You can find time. Take control of what you can control -- and take the anxiety out of your retirement planning.


More on SmartMoney and MSN Money:

Jul 14, 2011 10:38PM

Retirement sure seems like a crap shoot!  Business, in particular the banks and wall street get to gamble with everyone's financial well being... they are the house.  And if they should lose, the taxpayer just bails them out.  All reward no risk,  How can they lose?...and how can the little guy win?


Small businesses don't have this luxury.  True Capitalism is great, but what's going on in the business world is not capitialism...manipulating government for preferential treatment and taxpayer subsidies are merely attempts to cover for a diminishing ability to compete in the market place.


Workers don't have this option...American workers can out produce workers anywhere in the world given a level playing field.


The game is rigged.


Jul 15, 2011 11:42AM
Just a bit more information, that could have been added to the article. In regard to long term health insurance. Your yearly premiums, are a lot less, if you take out a policy, before you are sixty. If you can afford it, this is a wise move, if you have assets to protect, for the other spouse. Another reason for taking out, long term health insurance,  the way the economy is going, it is a reasonable guess, that medicaid, will cease to exist, when your resources are exhausted, and you are in a nursing home, which won't take long, with the rising cost of health care. If you do not have children you can count on, to take care of you, in the last years of your life, the long term health care insurance, is almost a necessity.  What dire straits for our country to be in, thanks to our worthless politicians in office the last twenty years.  
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