Are you clueless about retirement?
Study shows Americans are confident they'll retire comfortably. But many of us need a reality check.
April 11, 2003: 9:03 AM EDT
By Sarah Max, CNN/Money Staff Writer

BEND, Ore. (CNN/Money) - Stock market losses, serial layoffs and a buckling Social Security program haven't taken the wind out of the great American dream of retiring in style. But are people just great planners -- or delusional?

A study released Friday by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) and the American Savings Education Council (ASEC) found that the majority of Americans are either very confident (21 percent) or somewhat confident (45 percent) that they will have enough money to retire comfortably.

That's not showing much less confidence than the survey's results at the height of the bull market in 2000.

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But for many, it seems, this sense of security stems not from hefty retirement savings but a lack of awareness of just how much money they'll need to fund life after work.

"I'm a little disheartened (by the findings) because this confidence does not seem to be based in reality," said ASEC President Don Blandin.

Ignorance is bliss -- for now, anyway

Too many Americans, according to Blandin, are not saving at all or are saving "blindly" with no good estimate of how much they'll really need.

Many are counting on Social Security to bear the brunt of their retirement needs and believe that they are eligible for Social Security at a younger age than they actually are. (Only 16 percent of respondents were correct when asked when they would be eligible.)

Those who have given some thought to retirement often underestimate how much of their current income they'll need once they retire. Half of all respondents said they would need less than 70 percent of their pre-retirement income.

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Yet, financial planners say people should count on needing at least that much and quite a bit more if they haven't paid off big-ticket expenses such as their mortgage. As it is, some people face higher expenses in retirement than they do now, rising health-care costs being the biggest single source to blame.

"You'd be amazed at the amount of people who come in and have $100,000 and think they'll have plenty to retire in 15 years," said Frank Armstrong, a financial adviser in Coconut Grove, Fla., whose clients are primarily high net-worth individuals. "Most people are completely oblivious to how much money it will take to support their lifestyle."

Retirement, a new kind of problem

Although the late 1990s seemed to draw people from all walks of life into the stock market, a lot of people still are not comfortable being stewards of their retirement money, say planners.

To be sure, the EBRI/ASEC confidence study found that Americans have spent more time over the past year planning for holidays or social events than planning for retirement.

As people approach retirement age, however, they seem to be getting the message. In December, AARP conducted a survey that focused specifically on people between ages 50 and 70 who owned stock.

"We clearly saw some changes in behavior and expectations," said David Certner, director of AARP's federal affairs. "Two out of five said they'd live less comfortably in retirement and one in five actually postponed their retirement, which is pretty significant."

The EBRI/ASEC study saw a similar reaction among older respondents, with 24 percent of respondents ages 45 and older saying they plan to postpone retirement, up from 9 percent a year ago. "I'm actually encouraged to see that some people are getting more realistic," said Blandin.

Mary Mahoney, a certified financial planner in Albuquerque, N.M., has started seeing clients amend their original retirement plans, often because they cannot afford to pay for health insurance on their own. "I've also seen couples who've retired and had fun for a year knowing that at least one of them would have to go back to work part time. These part-time jobs seem to be just enough to take the edge off."

But keep in mind that postponing retirement or working part-time is not always an option.

"A lot of people are downsized or forced to quit working for health reasons," noted Blandin. "I still believe it's better to give up a little lifestyle today so you can save more and be legitimately confident about retirement."  Top of page

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