It's hard to look at the retirement savings of average working Americans and not be pessimistic about the future. Unfortunately, it will be difficult for employees who are many years from retirement to live as well in their old age as members of my generation do.
I retired from full-time work more than 15 years ago, and I consider myself fortunate because I had the following advantages: My employer provided me with a defined benefit pension plan. I worked long enough to be eligible for a Social Security pension. My employer offered a 401(k) plan allowing me to contribute 6 percent of my salary, which the employer matched at 3 percent. I was eligible for Medicare at 65, and with a supplemental Medicare plan, most of my medical expenses are covered.
The upshot is that most employees will have smaller pensions with defined-contribution plans than they would have had with the now all but extinct defined-benefit plans. John Bogle, the founder of the giant mutual fund company Vanguard, told Reuters last November that the average balance in the 401(k) plans under the company's management was around $26,000. Among older accountholders, the median was about $60,000. That spells trouble. "We have to have people save more, we have to have corporations pay more," Bogle said.
It is unlikely that Congress will eliminate Social Security pensions. However, it will be under pressure to make changes because of projected deficits, and likely changes will not benefit future retirees. Some recommended changes to date have included raising the age for full Social Security benefits; modifing the cost-of-living index so that future increases are smaller; and changing the computation of benefits (i.e., reducing them).
Moreover, projected spending for Medicare is unsustainable, and Medicare fraud is rampant. Congress will be forced to make changes that likely will not benefit future retirees.
Even government workers, who for the most part have been able to preserve their pensions and health care benefits, may see these reduced. States and municipalities are under pressure to reduce expenses. Some benefits have already been reduced, and this trend will not not go away.
What can employees who are many years away from retirement do to ensure that theirs is secure? Consider these options:
--If your workplace offers a 401(k) plan with an employer match, be sure to make the necessary contribution to obtain the match.
--Take advantage of the laws allowing you to make tax-deferred IRA contributions. If you are self-employed, make the maximum tax-deferred plan contributions.
--Save and invest as much as possible on a regular, recurring basis early in your career to take advantage of the power of compounding. Pay yourself first, before you make unnecessary expenditures. If you wait to start an investment program, it will be significantly harder. Individuals who wait until they are in their 50s to start an investment program will likely be unable to invest enough to ensure a prosperous retirement.
--Do not concentrate your portfolio on conservative investments. You cannot prepare for retirement by investing only in Treasury bills, money market instruments and short-term certificates of deposit. You must be willing to take some risks, such as investing in no-load common-stock index funds. Too many investors have become too conservative because of the volatility of the stock market and its decline in 2008. To be successful, investors must take a long-term approach.
--Pay attention to costs and commissions when you invest. Your investment program will be more successful if you minimize your investment expenses. A good benchmark is Vanguard's average annual expense ratio for its no-load mutual funds, 0.21 percent.
--Plan to have no outstanding debts when you retire.
--Use a retirement calculator to figure out what you need to save to fund a secure retirement. It may scare the daylights out of you, but it is one of the keys to taking action now. To find one, simply type "retirement calculator" into an Internet search engine. I recommend Vanguard's (search on http://www.vanguard.com) or T. Rowe Price's (https://www3.troweprice.com/ric/ricweb/public/ric.do).
Employees a long way from retirement will have more obstacles than my generation did to a prosperous retirement. You no longer can depend on corporations and the government to maintain policies that will help you. Quite the contrary. You need more self-reliance than your elders had. The earlier you recognize it, and do something about it, the better off you will be.
(Elliot Raphaelson welcomes your questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.)