Thursday, November 11, 2010

Retirement Doubts

There is absolutely no doubt that the retirement planning horizon is as diverse as those who are attempting to navigate it. In other words, there is no set formula for one group that can be used for another. On one side of the equation, we have those who can see the chance that they might retire and on the other, are those with doubts.

Those doubts exist in both groups. Older workers have seen the deterioration in their defined contribution account balances, the gradual and systematic elimination of pensions and the growing pressures that being sandwiched between both children and parents who are beginning to accept what they see as inevitable. That inevitability has been translated into simply working longer than they had previously anticipated to get the retirement that resembles that of a generation prior.

This group knows that they will need to invest more for their future at a time when they can't seem to free up any extra income to do so. They run calculations. They do math. And then, with all of this somewhat depressing information in front of them, they seem to be doing what would be counterintuitive: they become conservative in those investments.

The younger group, the college graduate, the young workers just entering the workplace and those who have been struggling with new families have a unique opportunity that has long since past the other group. They have time.

Many of these workers will enter the workforce where there is no pension, where they anticipate the benefits of Social Security will be limited and attainable farther away than that of their older cohorts and a marketplace that served the older workers with longer bull markets that are not likely to exist in the future. That bull market, a term defined as positive movement in the stock market, helped their parents in ways that will not be there for them.

From 1982 to 2000, most of those in 401(k) plans saw balances rise without limit - or so it seemed. Since that point, we have seen two bubbles burst, stock market returns become more volatile and faith that this investment vehicle has stalled.

Yet those 401(k) plans still offer the best opportunity to do better than their parents at battling the potential of increased taxes, rampant inflation and that volatility. these 401(k) plans are shifting, often in dramatic fashion. Matching contribution are less than in those bull market years and for this group, they can expect that they will stay that way. But there are some changes taking place that could help this group more so than their older counterparts.

These changes include the increased presence of Roth 401(k)s in those defined contribution plans. Whereas older workers would need to calculate their taxes when making a change into these sorts of plans from a traditional 401(k), younger workers can begin at this point. The Roth 401(k) allows for after-tax contributions, which for most younger workers means that earning less (being taxed less) is a hidden benefit. Rollovers from a traditional plan comes with a tax bill. Beginning at this point, as younger workers can do, will not have any taxable impact.

But the best way for younger workers to avail themselves of this opportunity should be done in a tandem approach to the plan. If you contribute 5% of you pre-tax income, you will not in most instances, impact a dime of your take-home pay. At this point, finding an additional 5% to put in the Roth 401(k) side of the plan not only hedges against taxes in the future but gives you the ability to know this money is yours, the taxes you paid at a younger age will be less than at rate you might receive as you age, get pay increases and promotions.

This group should also know that this should be the time of your most aggressive investment strategy. Yes it will be a rough ride. But having time to recover is worth the risk. You have to contribute and stay in it through thick and thin to benefit. You can retire doing this even if you have no idea what your retirement will look like.

Paul Petillo is the managing editor of and a fellow Boomer

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