3 Ways to Take Control of Your Retirement

Posted: June 14, 2012 at 7:17 pm

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England's blustery Dorset coast seems an unlikely setting for retirement planning lessons, but actually it's perfect. That's where this summer's Olympic sailboat races will take place, and viewers new to sailing will learn a surprising fact: You can sail into the wind. You need to tack in ways that aren't necessary when the wind is behind you, but do it right and you'll move bracingly fast.

That's retirement planning today. You're feeling virtually all the financial winds right in your face. Strapped governments at every level will be giving you fewer services and taking more from you in taxes and fees. Inflation may be creeping up. Employers will continue the long-term trend of whittling retirement security by freezing or abolishing the few remaining defined-benefit pension plans and reducing company contributions to 401(k) plans. As for your investment portfolio -- forget those reassuring historical stock market returns of around 11% annually and note that recent years have been far grimmer: The S&P 500 (SPX) is right where it was more than 12 years ago, in January 1999. Warren Buffett assumes Berkshire Hathaway's (BRKA) pension plan will earn a modest 7.1% a year.

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One more fact: You'll probably live longer than you expect, a wonderful thing in every way except financially. New research from the Society of Actuaries finds that 57% of pre-retirees underestimate life expectancy from their current age, while only 28% overestimate. Your nest egg may have to last much longer than you thought.

Those are formidable headwinds. Yet as the Olympic sailors will remind us, you're not condemned to being blown backward. The right tactics will propel you ahead even now. Think of your practical next steps in three categories. Save smarter

In today's low-yield environment, most of us must salt away more. Easy to say, hard to do. If your employer hasn't adopted the Save More Tomorrow program, urge it to do so; and if it won't, then follow the program on your own. Developed by UCLA business professor Schlomo Benartzi and behavioral economist Richard Thaler, it lets employees pre-commit to saving more every time they get a pay raise. It works -- participants save much more than nonparticipants.

In choosing your saving rate, face the new reality of inflation. Experts debate whether years of monetary loosening in the U.S. and other major economies will push up prices significantly, but ignoring the risk would be foolish. Suppose you'd like your portfolio to pay you $100,000 a year (in constant dollars) for 30 years. With an after-tax return of 6% and inflation at 2%, a nest egg of $1.82 million will do the job. But if inflation turns out to be just one point higher than you assumed, at 3%, you'll need another quarter million dollars.

Invest smarter

Back when we all thought we'd get 11% long-term annual returns, we could maybe afford to ignore fees and expenses. No more. It's time to get tough on the "helpers," Buffett's sarcastic term for the intermediaries who take bits and pieces of our investment returns. As he and Vanguard founder John Bogle constantly preach: Over decades, tenths of a point matter. Some helpers, such as the best fee-only advisers, are emphatically worth their cost. But in today's environment, investors must know exactly how much they're paying and for what.

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3 Ways to Take Control of Your Retirement

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June 14th, 2012 at 7:17 pm

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