Saturday, November 12, 2011

Is a Million Dollars Enough?

As long as I have been writing about financial topics, the million dollar mark has been the goal that most every retirement planner suggested was necessary to leave the workforce and have enough to live comfortably for the rest of your life. And then, not coincidentally, the post-2008 landscape changed that configuration, in many instances, actually lowering the goal.

Keep in mind that goals are backward looking even as they are forward reaching. You need one they suggest to know what you need to do to get there. The question that lingers is how much is a goal worth having if the goal creates stress on your well-being, your family dynamic and your overall health? In fact, the answer may eventually answer the question of how long will we live in retirement?

Is a goal worth having?
Yes and no. First it identifies what needs to be done to achieve whatever it is you dream of doing. You want to go to the movies, the goal is to produce the twenty bucks or so it will cost. This is a fixed goal with real tangible numbers to accompany the desire. You know the real cost of going: tickets, concessions, babysitter, etc. You also equate exactly how many hours you may have worked to achieve that goal. Retirement unfortunately is much different.

You don't know what anything will cost. Folks throw out inflation as a concern, healthcare as an untenable cost and your longevity is the long-term savings reducer rather than the concept that it will give you more fruitful lives. 

You do know that you don't want to be newsworthy. You don't want to be headlines: "woman says death preferable to living in poverty" or "man says I didn't plan on being poor". So you do two things that enable what might seem inevitable. You worry and you don't save.

So what is the number?
There is no number. There is just you trying to figure out the day-to-day while ignoring the future. Keep in mind that no retirement plan was ever designed to replace 100% of your current income. Eight-five percent is considered good and seventy percent of your current income would be do-able. You can subtract your projected Social Security Income and you have some sort of idea how much you will need based on how much you need now.

In survey after survey, you have answered with comments that suggest you are no where near where you should be. Of course you aren't. Even if you haven't invested/saved all that much, time will make it somewhat better. Compounding still works. The investments you make now will be better off in the future, even if only slightly so. And the budget you keep now will help you stomach living on less in the future.

In survey after survey, the folks who look at the data, construct the questions and parse the info the answers supply see a landscape littered with dispair and angst. They see people lamenting that they will work until they die. They see people complaining that they will do worse than their parents and suggest that they will do worse than any generation prior to this one. They find that people are unwilling to adjust their dreams and use that as the goal, even if it is wholly unrealistic.

Is the answer your 401(k) plan sponsor's responsibility?
Russell Investments thinks this may be the key. They did a study recently that suggested two things: higher income wage earners will be better prepared for any problems they may encounter in retirement (healthcare costs, market volatility, inflation, etc.) while lower income wage earners will struggle with the day-to-day expenses prohibiting them from finding any available cash in which to save. The study does suggest that Social Security plays a lesser role in the higher pre-retirement income wage earners plan (about 36%) as compared to the lower income worker (about 51% of current income could be replaced).

But where the study differs from other reports on the dire state of this affair is helping the plan sponsor reconstruct their role in the process. Without citing the cost to businesses for retaining older workers (some numbers have put the cost as high as an $50,000 per worker past normal retirement age), focusing on the near-term expenses by making the plan better may be the best way to move this worry into the realm of manageable.

I'll give you the link to the whole study (here) but the element that intrigued me the most was the suggestion that the defined contribution side of the equation, the fiduciary responsibility of the company, could play the role that has been often overlooked. It is easy to say save more without offering the employee any hope of finding the right investments in which to do just that.

The way they suggest it would work is first to induce the employee to use the plan. Rather than a dollar for dollar match up to a certain percentage, they suggest that the employer match 75% of the first 5% contributed. Five percent has long been considered a sort of break even point for the employee providing some contribution without impacting the take-home pay needed by the lower income earning group.

If you were to see it written as a math sentence, it would look like this: A 75% match of first 5% of income creates a savings rate of 8.75% or 5% plus (0.75 x 5%) = 8.75%

But they think the best option would be to not stop there with the incentives. They think a secondary match should kick in once the employee taps the 5% mark. Companies could offer a 25% match on the next 5% contributed.
If you were to see this next stage of the plan, it would look like this: 8.75% plus (0.25 x 5%) = 15% savings rate.

The study goes a bit further suggesting that auto-enrollment and auto-escalation (essentially forwarding pay raise to the plan instead of to the paycheck) would get these hesitant savers on board sooner rather than later. It would also require the plan administrator to refocus on the core demographic of the employees, tailoring the underlying investments towards that group and controlling expenses better in the process.

And that would change the question of whether a million dollars was enough to "aren't we in this together?"

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