By Jean Chatzky with Arielle McGowen
January 22, 2009
No matter how old you are, talking about saving for retirement always brings these questions: How much will I need? Where should I invest my money? How can I make sure it lasts as long as I do?
Deep concerns about the stock market downdraft, however, have led to a more urgent question: Will I be able to retire in this lifetime?
It's completely legitimate. Pension plans are fading away—only about 20 percent to 30 percent of working Americans have one. Experts believe Social Security will survive, although the program may change. If you have money set aside for retirement, you've likely seen 30 percent or even 50 percent of it washed away.
What should you do? Here are ideas you can use at every age:
Cut back on withdrawals. Make a pact with yourself—and your spouse, if you have one—to live on the same amount you withdrew in 2008. You may have to make a few changes to your standard of living, postpone a vacation, a new TV or scale back your household budget, but it's a relatively painless way to ride out the storm. Once the market rebounds, you can reassess and increase your withdrawals.
Also, consider taking a part-time job. It should be something you enjoy, and it'll help fill in the blanks until your investments rebound.
That's the wrong approach. You're not going to need all your money the day you retire. "You have to stick with your long-term asset allocation," advised Christine Fahlund, senior financial planner at T. Rowe Price.
If you're still nervous, reduce your 401(k) contributions and save the equivalent of a few years' worth of expenses, said Bill Losey, author of Retire in a Weekend: The Baby Boomer's Guide to Making Work Optional.
In Your 50s
You're riding it out. You likely have 10-plus years before you start withdrawals, so you should continue contributions. Double check that your asset allocation is still one you're comfortable with, but don't pull out because you're experiencing a lot of losses.
"People hate volatility when the market goes down, but they love volatility when it goes up. ... The stock market goes up about 70 percent of the time. Right now, we're in that 30 percent when it goes down, and we've just got to deal with it," Losey said.
Also look into long-term care insurance. The best time to buy may be now. If you wait until you're 60, you'll pay more. Generally, if you have $300,000 or more in savings, you're a good candidate for this kind of coverage, which gives you more choices than Medicaid.
Calculate how much you need to retire. In Your 20s, 30s or 40s
This group will really benefit from this market, although it doesn't seem like it yet. First, though, build an emergency fund. If you don't have at least six months' worth of expenses saved up, focus on that.
Once that's established, save for retirement. "This is a fabulous opportunity to buy low," Fahlund said. You have decades and decades ahead of you—perhaps 50, 60, 70 years or more—and you should be taking advantage by investing on an automatic basis. Do so no matter what volatility comes up in the future.