Planning For Retirement When Savings Fall Short

Mar 27, 2013
Originally published on March 27, 2013 5:04 am

For most Americans, the math for a comfortable retirement may never add up.

According to recent census figures, Americans ages 55 to 65 had about $45,000 in savings and assets, not including their homes. In another survey, by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, 57 percent of American workers said they have less than $25,000 in total savings and investments. That's not much to supplement Social Security to get them through the rest of their years.

Morning Edition's Renee Montagne talked to three experts about retiring with little savings.

Michelle Singletary, personal finance columnist for The Washington Post, on rethinking expectations

"You've got to just think differently about your retirement if you have no savings," Singletary says.

She suggests downsizing for those who don't own their home outright. For those who can't downsize, she suggests taking on a roommate — or perhaps asking a relative to move in — to help split the rent.

"You've just got to think out of the box and not be so stubborn. People say, 'I can't live with anybody. I can't sell the house,' " she says. "But what's the alternative? For you to sit there and struggle and lose the house anyway? Or stress out your adult children or other relatives while you try to make things work?"

Tim Maurer, financial planner, on moving someplace cheaper and getting a job

Maurer works with clients in the Washington, D.C., area, where houses average $370,000. He often encourages them to look south, to states like North Carolina.

"Take a look at Charlotte, a very diverse city with all sorts of business opportunities as well as pleasure, and here we're talking about a median home price of $126,600, and then you can buy a house for less than half the cost. And if you buy the house that you need at this stage of the game — something a little bit smaller, more comfortable — you can actually have a net gain where you can take the excess funds from selling your house, add it to your retirement nest egg, and now you're also paying less every day for the rest of your life because the cost of living is lower."

Maurer also says a new or part-time job can supplement Social Security income. Downgrading careers doesn't have to be a bad thing.

"I've had clients who spent a lifetime in engineering [who] love getting a job at Home Depot because it was the place they loved to go on Saturdays. They have good benefits there. People are getting jobs at a place like Starbucks. These [are] places that tend to pay reasonably well, certainly below what they may have expected or received over the course of their careers, but it's something that they really, genuinely enjoy doing. And as a result, those job opportunities are out there, because they are not always the highest paying."

Mary Beth Franklin of Investment News, on making the most out of Social Security

"If you plan to keep working while you claim Social Security benefits, you're going to end up losing some of those benefits — basically giving them back. So my No. 1 rule is if you plan to keep working, don't take Social Security benefits before your normal age of 66. Once you get to 66, this thing called the earnings cap that can claw back some benefits goes away."

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Well, here's something a lot of Americans won't be cheering about, and that's that the math for a comfortable retirement may never add up for many. We've been talking about baby boomers and their finances. Today, the many Americans whose retirement savings fall short. Recent census figures find that the median value of assets for Americans age 55 to 64 - baby boomers - is just a bit more than $45,000, not including whatever their homes are worth. Which means many will be depending on Social Security for most or all their retirement income. Michelle Singletary says she gets a lot of questions about this. She's the Washington Post's personal finance columnist.

MICHELLE SINGLETARY: Many people sort of think of retirement as, you know, I'm lounging around, I'm traveling around the world or seeing grandchildren, and that may not be your retirement. It may be working a little longer. It may be bringing in a roommate, or living with a relative. You've got to just think differently about your retirement if you have no savings.

MONTAGNE: OK. Let's talk about housing. If you own a home, that's a huge comfort. But if you're still paying down a mortgage, should you think about downsizing?

SINGLETARY: Absolutely. What I tell folks is that one of the things that you can do as you're heading to retirement is pay off your mortgage, because think about all our budgets. Our housing is the largest part of what we spend every month. So that may mean that you've got to downsize. If you can't downsize, then that's when you start thinking about something like a roommate. And maybe you've got an elderly brother or sister or aunt who can come in, and you guys can split the cost. You've just got to think out of the box and not be so stubborn. People are like, oh, I can't live with anybody. Oh, I can't sell the house. But what's the alternative? For you to sit there and struggle and lose the house anyway, or stress out your adult children or other relatives while you try to make things work?

MONTAGNE: One tried entryway of making retirement savings go further is, of course, moving to a place where things cost less. Financial planner Tim Maurer works with clients in the Washington, D.C. area, where, he says the average price of a home is now $370,000. He encourages clients in his city to look south, to states like North Carolina.

TIM MAURER: Take a look at Charlotte, a very diverse city with all sorts of business opportunities, as well as pleasure. And here we're talking about a median home price of $126,600. And then you could buy a house for less than half the cost. And if you buy the house that you need at this stage of the game - something a little bit smaller, more comfortable - you can actually then have a net gain where you can take the excess funds from selling your house added to your retirement nest egg. And now you're also paying less every day for the rest of your life because the cost of living is lower.

MONTAGNE: All over the country, there are options like that. And if you can't afford to move, Maurer says a new, perhaps part-time, job can supplement Social Security income.

MAURER: I've had clients who spent a lifetime in engineering love getting a job at Home Depot, because it was the place they would love to go on Saturdays. They have good benefits there. People are getting jobs at a place like Starbucks - these places that tend to pay reasonably well, certainly below what they may have expected or received over the course of their careers, but it's something that they really genuinely enjoy doing.

MONTAGNE: And if you are strapped for retirement income, one other thing would be to make sure you're getting the most out of Social Security. One way to do that is to wait until the full retirement age of 66 before starting to claim benefits.

MARY BETH FRANKLIN: Well, at 62, yes, you can claim benefits. But if you take it at 62, you're going to take a 25 percent haircut the rest of your life.

MONTAGNE: That's Mary Beth Franklin of Investment News.

FRANKLIN: If you plan to keep working while you claim Social Security benefits, you're going to end up losing some of those benefits, basically giving them back. So my number one rule is if you plan to keep working, don't take Social Security benefits before your normal age of 66. Once you get to 66, this thing called the earnings cap that can claw back some benefits goes away.

MONTAGNE: We'll talk to Mary Beth Franklin at length about Social Security in our next conversation about baby boomers and their finances. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.