Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ready or Not is Not the Question

Are you ready? It seems that something as simple as a question like that, particularly when it pertains to your retirement could never be answered. 'I hope so', or 'as I will ever be' all see like the answers most of us would give when asked that question. When in fact, a new tool hopes to pinpoint your potential for retiring well by putting your plan's ability to do what it should under the microscope.

A short while back, I wrote about a company that uses a series of benchmarks and mathematical equations to determine whether your 401(k) plan is doing what it should. Brightscope's product was designed to help plan sponsors find the problems in their plans and make an effort to correct them. As noble as that effort may be, the hurdles are numerous for plan participants to get their companies to make the necessary changes to their plans.

Now we have another entrant to the market place, this one offering the plan sponsor a look a their employee's retirement readiness. Fiduciary Benchmarks, based in Kansas will provide a snapshot look at a company's plan and the chances that their employee will arrive at retirement with enough cash to be considered adequate.

Using 100% as the retirement readiness benchmark, a number that represents different things to different income groups, the report, provided free in brief and at the cost of $100 for more detailed analysis looks at the average employee. From there, the report then analyzes various pathways that employee can take, and if they did, how well the plan allowed them to reach the optimum amount in their retirement accounts.

In a downloadable pdf, they suggest that a person earning $20,000 a year will need 94% of their pre-retirement income to survive. Although the plan does take into account conservative longevity predictions and the available investments in the plan, it does not look at the statistics for this particular group and their overdependence on Social Security benefits.

Their benchmark also suggests that someone earning three times that amount would need only 78% of their working income to hit the 100% mark in the company's index. Some industries fair much better than others. But this is not reflective of the whole of the employees in the plan, simply what the plan may do for you should you use it to its fullest.

And therein lies the rub. Most employees, no matter how good the plan, do not max out their retirement contribution, leaving them with a huge gap in what they will need and what they enter retirement with. Without full participation, there is little another tool for plan sponsors can do. The vast majority of plans are adequate even if they fall short on the educational side.

While there is emphasis on educating the participant through education of the plan sponsor, it is beginning to seem a little overdone, even as this type of spotlight is still in its infancy. Most employees wonder why their plans weren't improved sooner. And still more see the incremental improvements as a way to sustain the current level of contribution rather than an enticement to increase it.

The real improvement will come from the IRS. Once they fix the expected tax rate for retiree's plans when disbursement begins, and not leave the rate the big unknown, employees will see the future through a much clearer light. Not having any idea what those future taxes will be make it difficult to determine how much will be enough.

Paul Petillo is the Managing Editor for BlueCollarDollar.com and a fellow Boomer.

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