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Monday, August 6, 2012

Is The Retirement System Failing Americans?

Economist Teresa Ghilarducci (courtesy: Princeton University)

How much should you save for retirement? Economist Teresa Ghilarducci says you need between 10 and 20 times your annual salary, if you want to maintain your current lifestyle. That means if you make a $100,000 a year, you need up to $2 million in cash and assets.

But 75 percent of Americans approaching retirement in 2010 had under $30,000 in the bank.

Ghilarducci says the numbers show we have a crisis on our hands.

But she told Here and Now’s Robin Young, “People should stop blaming themselves.”

She says failure is baked into the system.

Ghilarducci says 401(k) savings accounts don’t give employees enough choice and they usually come with high fees that can erode your retirement income by 20 to 40 percent.

Ghilarducci argues that we need a new government-run savings plan to supplement Social Security, a proposal that has led critics on the right to call her, “America’s Most Dangerous Woman.”

Replay Our Chat With Retirement Expert Teresa Ghilarducci


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  • Dsavage33

    401(k) Myth


    December 26, 2011


    A person who earns on average $50,000 per year and works 45
    years, contributed 5% to his/her 401(k) plan and the company matched up to 5%
    dollar-for-dollar will have saved $225,000 (before gains/losses from stocks,
    bonds, etc).  No draw downs for home
    purchases, college costs, medical bills, etc. which most people will have in 45
    years. Also, we assume the stock market will add value to our 401(k)s – How is
    yours doing?


    Assuming the $225,000 is there when the person “retires” and
    takes 10% per year ($22,500) the money lasts 10 years – most people live 20
    years past retirement age. If one takes only 5% ($11,250) it will last 20
    years, but what lifestyle will $11,250 buy 10 or 20 years from now?


    Another problem: Many people do not earn $50,000 or more,
    live paycheck to paycheck, have to spend every dollar for lodging, food,
    medicine, transportation, etc. and can not save anything.  Since government employees have pensions
    (especially legislators) they do not have to worry about this problem.


    Remember, elections are November 6, 2012.


    Dave Savage

    Collingswood, NJ



    • Teresa Ghilarducci

      Hi Dave Savage, 

      Please check out the retirement calculator at AARP for some  realistic views of what a planner needs. For the person in low middle class brackets you will see that Social Security keeps them out of poverty – barely – but thank goodness for the Social security system. 

      How much a person will have at retirement who  saves 10% a year on top of social security depends on the real rate of return. But within reasonable parameters this person should be able to replace 70% of their preretirement salary. Did I answer your question all right? 


  • Keri

    Keri from Birmingham

    I am 34 and currently have around 36,000 in my 401k.  It has been flat for the last couple of years going up and going down but never really surpassing this 36,000 mark.  I have my funds distributed in the old keep your age in bonds the rest in stocks idea, so I have around 35 percent in bonds and the rest in stocks. In todays atmosphere what is the new idea for investment for my age bracket?  Thanks.

    • Teresa Ghilarducci

      Hi Keri,

      I am glad it was flat in the last few years, could have been worse!! I think that you will get a lot of mileage by not focusing so much on allocation but focus on FEES. Get out of the actively managed accounts and pick  index funds. I think a 60/40 split between indexed stocks and  bonds make sense. 

      But the main problem is that you are paying too much in fees if the accounts are not passive, indexed funds. 


      • Walker

        I don’t agree with the 60/40 split between indexed stockes and bonds.  Keri is way to young to be putting in a significant amount into the bond market.  Like it or not, Keri needs to take more risk at her age, by going 100% in index stock funds.  ….. And don’t take any of it out for any reason.

        • Pembquist

          I don’t think you should be 100 percent of anything. The problem with asset allocation is that people think that it means some kind of guarantee. As if by risking more or less you will have more or less absolute return. The situation for most people today is that any paper investments available to them are overpriced for the amount of risk they carry. You can parse allocations all you want, the bottom line is that realistically the only way to be prepared for retirement is to earn and save more. The real question is is this even possible for the majority of the population?

  • J Frog

    “This do-it-yourself pension system (401K) has failed. It has failed because it expects individuals without investment expertise to reap the same results as professional investors and money managers.”

    Hasn’t it failed because people don’t defer enough?  They would rather have the extra car, or the more expensive car.  A regular cell phone isn’t enough, we need a smart phone with a $30/month data plan…and phone for everyone in my family, etc.  Our company, that has a company match (25 cents on the dollar)…gets around 3% deferrals on our gross pay. 

    • Teresa Ghilarducci

      Hi J Frog,

      The system has failed for three reasons 1.) you are right, people and their employers (and the federal and state government whose help in the form of tax deductions go  mostly to high income individuals) have not accumulated enough. But if they so the system fails because of investment vehicles are too liquid and the fees are too high and at retirement people take out lump sums because annuity prices are too high. So he  system fails at the accumulation phase, investment phase and the  payout phase. 

      So people need to save and not overspend; but even the people who do get fleeced on fees and annuity prices and do not get a tax credit. 


      • Tina Fiedler


        You know the economy is going to crash- when it does your mandatory savings plan will be confiscated by the gov’t- that’s what your whole program is for- to take our money- issue us a worthless savings bond, then everything goes poof! and our money’s gone.

    • HopelessAboutChange

      No. A very few extremely smart and well connected investors can “beat” the stock market. The average individual has neither the time nor the information to beat the market.

      I did every thing I was told to do by the “experts”. I made the %10+ investment. I lost %50 of my accounts during the dot com boom. I lost some, but not as much during the 2008 crash.

      The only people making money in the market now are the big banks doing high speed trading on thin margin. I have a full time job. If I had time pursue such things, I would be an investment banker, not a software engineer.

      • BHA_in_Vermont

         “big banks doing high speed trading on thin margin”

        Yep. The first big change in the tax code should be length of time held.
        - If less than 24 hours, tax rate on gains is 110%, losses and trading fees not deductible.
        - If less than 7 days, tax rate on gains is 100%, losses and trading fees not deductible.

        - If less than 14 days, tax rate on gains is 90%, losses and trading fees not deductible.

        - If less than 30 days, tax rate on gains is 80%, losses and trading fees not deductible.

        Investing in stocks and bonds was ORIGINALLY supposed to provide capital to businesses. Now it is all about paper gains providing ZERO capital to businesses.

        • J Frog

          The IPO or secondary offering provides the capital. Trading was never about that. Trading gives shareholders are chance to recover some of their invested capital for cash by letting new investors buy in.

  • Chndpk

    Today Americans need to think savings, no one is going to do it for you. You sooner you start the better and stop buying things you don’t need. Companies are not thinking of benefits for their employees, they are watching their bottom line.

    • Teresa Ghilarducci

      I agree! My proposal calls for personal responsibility on the savings part and institutional choice for those who save. 

  • Lee

    What do you think about the following for a retiree:

    1.  equity index annuities
    2. universal life insurance
    3. Long term care (high net worth)

    • Teresa Ghilarducci

      Hi Lee, 

      I like all passive or indexed products. I don’t touch actively managed products at all. Universal life insurance is most of the time too costly, I would recommend term life insurance. And long term care insurance for people with between one million and ten million might make sense. They are expensive and it is difficult to know what they cover when. Remember 70% of nursing home expenses are paid for by Medicaid. 


      • Kathryn

        I’ve heard this recommendation before, but…if one spouse goes on Medicaid for nursing care, doesn’t that leave the surviving spouse in poverty?  We don’t have enough money to pay for extended care, so if either of us needed it…the other would end up with only social security (or next to nothing).  How do couples who plan to share resources for retirement protect themselves from one partner needing expensive care?

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/OTZVJLPYZVMLVCFIXH2VFS42QE Falcon

    As A CFP, I can say that what you are doing is highly irresponsible. You do not even address the REAL problems and how the retirement has become this way. IT IS THE MONETARY SYSTEM. Keep your socialist policies to yourself. YOU ARE SCARY.

    • http://profiles.google.com/rickevans033050 Rick Evans

       “As A CFP, I can say that what you are doing is highly irresponsible.”

      Heh,heh, heh.

      Feeling naked Emperor?

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/OTZVJLPYZVMLVCFIXH2VFS42QE Falcon

    The reason the markets and the 401ks are having problems is because you have a criminal syndicate running the banks and influencing Washington. DO YOU NOT GET THIS???? You point at the alleged problems, but they are not the real problems and the cause for the market volatility. 

    IT IS THE ILLEGAL PRACTICES OF THE BIG BANKS. HELLO???? Who are your professional that can figure it all out? You say WE, as professionals can not??? That is nonsense.

    Do not start taking private money like a communist.

    • Teresa Ghilarducci

      Hi Falcon,  

      I hear your frustration with the banks. I share them. I propose that people have more  alternatives than the retail 401(k) and IRA options that are deeply flawed — no  fiduciary protections, high retail fees, too liquid. I propose that the institutional investors that manage corporate pension funds, state and local pension funds, and even the funds of Federal Reserve employees be available for all people. I am advocating more choice of investment vehicles. 

      Teresap.s.  See my book “When I’m Sixty Four” Princeton University Press for more details.

  • zhongdu


  • Vandermeer

    Deduct more from high wage earners for SS. Isn’t this an easy fix???? Why is there a cap for the deduction?

    • BHA_in_Vermont

       Because the people who need it the least (if at all) make the rules.

  • kathleen

    I am 56 and have been saving 20 years for my retirement.  Here’s my question:  I am still saving but feel that the $$$ is going into a pit — low interest rates, minimal gains, if any.  At my age — and I hope to work until I am booted out of here @ 63 — what’s a good place to sock some money besides mutual funds, etc.  I know this is vague…

    • rico

       I’m 56 with 25 years with the same company. I’m lucky to have a pension plan and I save into an IRA with limited matching contributions. I bought my home under good terms and my kids are set with good educations and low debt. Both of them have solid employment so I don’t have to worry about them needing help.

      With all this I am still worried. My pension and IRA are in the hands of the same people who crashed our markets and cost most savers to lose 1/3 of their wealth.

      My humble advice- save as much as you can.  Live on as little as possible. Encourage your kids to acquire an education that will really pay the bills anywhere they may go. Read the fine print.


    • kevins198

       I concur. I am 55 and the first Bush recession took nearly 40% of my 401k. I was smart when the second Bush depression hit but…. My current savings are about the same as they were in 1997.

      How can I retire?

      I have not gotten a raise in 6 of the past 7 years. Corporate response. If you don’t like it leave. 

  • jefe68

    20 times our annual income for retirement? I don’t know about anyone else but I don’t have this kind of money. So I guess one should plan to be homeless in my old age or just plan for suicide as an option. The suicide option is just silly of course.

    The reality is this whole thing is rigged against most Americans. My late father had almost a million in savings invested in the stock market and lost about 40 to 50% in 2000 in his retirement and market plans. He was to old to recoup any of this. The game is rigged, period. 20 times our annual income? That’s a joke when the average income is about 50K a year or less. How does this Teresa Ghilarducci think people will be able to do this while trying to save for their kids college education while jsut trying to deal with day to day bills one has to pay.
    Food has gone up by about 20% in the last two years as has health insurance costs.
    20 times our annual income for retirement indeed. Where has all the money gone?

    • phill

      she says that American’s need AT LEAST 20 times their annual salary to BE ABLE TO retire.  
      she admits that this is NOT possible for most Americans and that is why she is trying to CHANGE the current system.

      • jefe68

        Why the caps Phill. I know what she said and means. My point was that most people will never be able to save this much.
        I even pointed out that some, such as my father did manage to save almost a million by the time he was in his late 60′s, only to lose a huge amount due to the market and some bad financial advise from a professional planner.
        She has little or no chance of changing the system and if she thinks it can be done she’s naive. Government is run by special interest, who in turn are mostly the ones responsible for the financial mess in the first place.

        401K’s were originally designed to part of three legged system that included pensions and social security.
        The other thing not even being mentioned is the cost of health care in this country which is eating up any hope of fixing this mess.

  • Guest


  • Emily

    I have enough to live on for the rest of my life.

    As long as I die by next Tuesday.

  • Thinkin15

    So glad that you are talking about this!! As the Republicans want to raise the age of Soc.Sec., cut pensions and banks offer .01 in interest, layoffs for people in their 50′s and 60′s, etc, HOW is the world will Americans make it into retirement??
    Where are all these seniors going to work? How will they live on low income wages and vanishing savings? I don’t want to put any more money into my IRA but where do I put it?!

  • Dlk6776

    The last thing we REALLY need is another government program. 

  • HopelessAboutChange

    I’ve done the math.

    I’ve investing in pencils so I have something to sell on the street corner when I become homeless sometime in my late 60s or early 70s.

    There should be plenty of geriatric prisons by then. It should be easy to get a life sentence since the law and order politicians keep adding new crimes with longer sentences.  

    • jefe68

      Considering not many people write anymore that’s not a very good plan.

      • HopelessAboutChange

        I guess that puts me on the second option. Anyone know which crimes get you the higher status in prison?

        • jefe68

          Being in the mob…

  • Kathy

    The truly sad part of this is while we talk about how our existing minimal safety net of social security is not sufficient, the political and chattering classes have essentially come to a consensus that we need to drastically cut social security and medicare.

  • Steve in New Hampshire

    Visit a Certified Financial Planner, they will tell you the market returns 9% over time. Over the past 20 years it has been a 1% return.  The home my parents purchased for $30,0000 they sold for $250,000.  A home purchased 20 years ago is worth little more then when it was purchased.  Its not just fees that are destroying savings  we are not getting the return on our investment that our parents and grandparents enjoyed.

    • HopelessAboutChange

      “Certified Financial Planner”

      That is a “profession” that belongs in the ashcan of history along with astrologist and alchemist.

  • Jjdittmer

    Theresa-thanks for your comments on NPR. I can appreciate your perspective and agree the system is rigged against the individual investor. The larger the group you can affiliate with the better deal you will get on fees and choice of investments. It is a shame that we have to be chasing our tails when at least part of the ‘old’ system had been working before wall street helped bring everything crashng down with their greed. I don’t care if that larger group is the government, AARP or any such organization. We need that level of protection against the money elite. Does it make sense, in our opinion, to expand social security since it is an already established group or try to start something from scratch given that, unless we get rid of the right-wing, everything for ourselves people in congress, nothing new will get passed. thanks
    Joseph Dittmer,PhD,MPA

  • ali13

    If we are heading for a nation of elderly in poverty, won’t that further deflate real estate values? In particular, values in over 55 retirement communities and popular sunshine states. Who will be able to afford those properties?

  • Thom B

    Hi Theresa:

    Some of us are fortunate enough to have defined benefit pensions. I do. My calculations show that with social security it returns more than what I make now.  The only downside is, only ss adjusts for inflation.

    What’s a good way to predict needs when you have a defined benefit? Your 100k x 20 doesn’t work for me.  Should I look at my current income and compare that to what I expect to have each year from all pension sources and take the temperature that way?



    • BHA_in_Vermont

       WOW, that is some good Defined Benefit plan. Combined with SS (if I retire at 65) mine is about 60% of what I make now.

    • Dan

      Good plan, if you can retire at your current income, and you are not debt, you are very fortunate.  You will find you spend less in retirement especially if you are out of debt.  Good luck!

  • CHK2000

    It seems that saving is not rewarded in this country with low interest rates expected to continue for several years.  Retirees and other committed savers are getting the shaft.  What is rewarded is taking out a huge mortgage and getting a tax break.  Why is going deeply into debt for a large mortgage rewarded more in the system than saving for one’s future?

    I am 51, single and childless, self employed for the last 18 years and have $800,000 currently saved.  I rent and live extremely frugally.  I don’t have nice “stuff” and suffer the ridicule of what level of materialism is expected for my peer group but I don’t want to starve when I’m old.  There is no trust fund or inheritance coming my way.  I do, however, currently enjoy a nice lifestyle as I can pretty much make my own hours and am not “owned” by a corporation who gets to dictate how much time time I get off (or not!), etc.

    The cost of buying health insurance on the open market makes me realize I will have to give up self employment eventually (perhaps soon) to work for a corporation or company in order to obtain a group rate.  This is also extremely unfair.  Why is self employment made so difficult?  Why do self employed people in the “land of the free” get punished by having to pay exhorbitant health insurance rates?  For a plan, I might add, that doesn’t cover much of anything because one has to pay the high deductible. 

    I know that compared to my peers I am financially secure but I do worry about my future because I know a major medical illness could wipe me out, another unfortunate fact of life in the good ole USA.  The system is clearly rigged against the average person.  CEO pay keeps going up while the 99% continue to struggle and as the show pointed out, many of these people are headed for a life of poverty.

    Don’t like to be a pessimist but I anticipate a spike in the suicide rate and perhaps even the murder rate if what the professor expects may happen for this generation comes to fruition.  When people are desperate, they take desperate measures. 

    • BHA_in_Vermont

       “Why is self employment made so difficult?  Why do self employed people
      in the “land of the free” get punished by having to pay exhorbitant
      health insurance rates?  For a plan, I might add, that doesn’t cover
      much of anything because one has to pay the high deductible. ”

      Which is why we need a NATIONAL single payer health care system.

      • Carrie G.

        BHA I agree 150%.  But we will never get it, things are going backwards in a real hurry.

      • CHK2000

         I agree.  It is almost unfathomable with the current unemployment rate that the ability to purchase affordable health insurance is tied to one’s employment status.  In addition, many companies are not offering health insurance benefits or they are opting to hire contractors or part time workers It doesn’t make any sense. 

        I also agree with Carrie G. that a national single player health care system is a long way off.  The insurance companies have way too much power to allow this to happen.  CEO compensation at “Health” Insurance companies is also unconscionable (and some might argue, immoral) as they are in the business of denying care to people who need it. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/rickevans033050 Rick Evans

    For a sanity check I recommend

    Choose To Save: http://www.choosetosave.org/ballpark/index.cfm?fa=interactive

  • RA in Boston

    While sobering, the $1-2 million scenario is the first realistic figure I’ve seen in terms of retirement savings. For years when I sought retirement information, the standard line was, “First figure out what you’ll need in retirement….” Who could figure that out?

    A key concept in your article and discussion with Robin is, “standard of living.” Can we maintain our “current” standard of living into our retirement years? Do we need (or want) to?

    Maybe this Baby Boom generation will rally as we did when we developed the environmental and other movements, and create new ways of living as older people. Those old hippie communes might be a model – people sharing resources. We’re already starting to see Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities such as the Beacon Hill Village.

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    I live cheap. I’m throwing 15% in and my employer is putting in 5% into a diversified 401K hoping that when I can retire I won’t have to worry about eating 10 or 20 years later. Year after year there is little (if anything) more than there was at the end of the prior year. Money down a rat hole unless the rate of return gets back to “historical norms”.

    Dr. Ghilarducci is suggesting an additional “security net” government program? I’m sure she is getting a lot of hate mail from the “right” who think that everyone who isn’t rich is a slacker looking for a free ride on their overtaxed backs.

    • Dandowens

      Well put! Good summary. So how can we really prepare for reasonable retirement? Denise in Charlotte

      • Dan

        Hope you are young because it is much easier to accomplish if you start then.  Look at Coffee House Investor to explain index fund advantage.  It is online.  Look for jobs that have a 401K employee match, try to live below your income by paying yourself first.  If you get married, work as a team, and you will make it.  Remember if you live below your means your whole life, it is easier when you retire.

  • Jennifer4change

    Businesses have created this problem.   It has concentrated money at the top with little to no regard for the people working below the 1%.  Salaries for most people have not kept up with the cost of inflation since 1973. Why has this been allowed to continue? Why has a law not been passed as well as enforced to require all employers to pay a yearly cost of living increase to all its employees on top of a salary increase.  Then perhaps people could save enough for retirement. The 401K fees eating up earnings of 20% to 40% certainly needs to be fixed.

    The minimum wage needs to be changed to a living wage. Minimum wage, which is not enough for anyone to live on in the United States, let alone save money for retirement. We need to stop subsidizing million dollar corporations and require them to pay their employees a living wage. A living wage that takes into account what the cost of living is for each town or city in which the  employee works. People have cried that this will hurt small businesses. I say that no it will require small businesses to be smaller and to work smarter. No one should be making a profit off the back of employees who aren’t paid enough to have a comfortable life, without working two or three jobs. Many people who are working minimum wage jobs have college degrees
    but could not find good paying jobs. They could not afford to move to a larger city where more opportunities exist, they did not have the job contacts or know how to go about getting them.

    We also need to enforce a forty hour work week for salaried employees. Too many employers are under staffing and requiring employees to work 60 to 80 hours a week, in fact doing the work of two employees for the pay of one. This should not be allowed. How do we change this?

    Retail establishments are also under staffing their stores, creating stress for employees and customers. It is not healthy for employees to be running all out each and every day to do their job. This is when accidents and injuries occur.

    Many employers that once provided good quality health insurance and pensions for their employees no longer do.

    We need to require employers to pay salaries that reflect the true cost of living, inflation and the ability to pay off college loans, housing, kids college and retirement.
    Sign me 40 something with huge  student loans, no house, no condo, no car and no retirement.

    • Suzanna

      I  am  a college-educated senior whose only income is a less-than-average social security check plus very occasional part-time jobs, and I can certainly sympathize with your situation and ideals. However, from your comments I would suggest that you educate yourself about how business works (and doesn’t work) because you clearly lack an understanding of the subject. Just one example: the minimum wage was increased recently, and in Nevada, by law, it had to increase above the federal increase. When businesses are forced to pay higher wages than they can afford, they usually either stop hiring, lay off existing employees, or close their doors. Nevada has the one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation; every where you go in Las Vegas you see empty storefronts and office buildings. Higher minimum wages have probably contributed to the situation.

      • jefe68

        I doubt that higher minimum wages is the reason for the huge economic downturn that is plaguing Nevada. I seem to remember that Nevada and particularly Las Vegas was hit hard by the housing bubble bursting and coupled with the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression, one would think this is the reason for dearth of empty store fronts. By the way speaking of educating ones self in regards to the economy it would seem that you also lack a firm understanding of what happened in your very own state.

      • rico

         Businesses increase their profits by either raising prices or lowering costs. The easiest cost to control is labor. The minimum wage has nothing to do with the number of people hired. All businesses try to get the fewest workers to do the highest amount of work.  Workers today have to negotiate and pay for their heath and life insurance and fund their retirement. The average worker is up against professionals who are more interested in lining their pockets than in protecting the individual working man or woman.

        try this report that came out in 2006 and explains what really happened to our economy in 2008.


      • Sam Walworth


        Going by your example, the entire IT  (Information Technology) industry would go belly up, because almost ALL businesses who Deploy IT by any means has to incur Spending first and then gain later.

        Similarly, if  the Min. wages go high, agreed on a short term the business expense goes high, however at the same, the businesses benefit more because now more people have more money to spend.

        On the other hand if you reduce it, more people may Reduce Spending  and may infact cause a recession to some extent.

    • rico

       I have watched in horror as Americans voted again and again for people who state very plainly that their allegiance is with the 1%. More and more people are attacking a retirement system that has worked for decades in favor of placing our money in the hands of people who worship greed. VOTE IN YOUR OWN BEST INTEREST. Lord knows the rich have spent enough to buy our government away from us! 

  • Ridea

    I’ve just began reading The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz and it appears many economist like yourself see and understand the problem we have and are facing between the have’s and the have not’s… but nothing is changing.  

    Public and Tax Policies are not changing. Money is just shifting from the 99% to the 1%.

    Exactly what needs to happen to enact some of these balanced and fair ideas that economist have proposed?  

    How do you get the rich and powerful to see that the current system and polices aren’t sustainable and we are all in this together?

    • Walked the talk

      Type your comment here.

      That togetherness, like
      the tooth fairy, is largely myth. The upper 1% may lose a few million dollars and
      some social standing during a downturn, but they won’t miss a meal or worry
      about the tuition expense anywhere.

      you get the rich and powerful to see is not to be the problem.  They see quite well and profit handsomely,
      while the majority of the voters continue electing people who believe that we
      can borrow our way out of debt.  For 50
      years we, individually and our governments, have lived beyond our means by
      borrowing to pay for a lifestyle we couldn’t afford. 

      the divorcee of yesteryear, we now want to continue to live in the lifestyle to
      which we have become accustomed.  Never
      mind the cost, we’ll stick it to the divorcee’s ex-mate, which in this case
      will be anyone who was foolish enough to loan us money.  The dastardly devils who loaned us the money
      think they should get their money back, and we will give them a dollar for
      every dollar they gave us, plus interest, but the dollar we give them will only
      be worth ten cents.  If you were foolish
      enough to have saved, you get to be both the goat and the kicking post.

      do you save 20 times your annual income? 
      You live like a recent immigrant who has yet to accept the American
      lifestyle.  You work two full-time jobs,
      live in an 800 square foot house, don’t buy a TV or iThingy, don’t use a credit
      card, don’t eat out or take out-of-town vacations, do raise your daughter to be
      a princess or your son to be an underwater basket weaver.  But, who wants to live like that?  Better to be a Greek, to retire at age 50 and
      to resent the Germans because they don’t want to loan you any more money.

      who is the smart one?

  • Towndump

    Absolutely true that people are not prepared for retirement. A relative lost her $35,000 a year job  over a year ago, after 29 years there, is 57 and can not find another job. She’s been on unemployment but  that’s about to end and she’s just beginning to understand her predicament. She lost her 401K in 2008 from bad investments, so has nothing left, is divorced, her kids are grown and gone, does not own a house and, basically, has nothing. 

    I’ve been covering her COBRA as she has health issues and needed surgery, but that too is about to end. She lives in Florida and no insurance company there will enroll someone with pre-existing conditions. I can’t wait for 2014 to get here so that outrageous practice will end will end, thanks to President Obama, but it won’t be in time for her.

    She’s applying for Social Security Disability, but even if she gets it, it won’t be much. God help this woman.

    • BHA_in_Vermont

       And what is she going to do if Romney gets elected?

    • Sympathetic

      You are a very fine person to be helping your relative the way you are.

      I hope others are sympathetic to her story.  We are all vulnerable in this economy.  

      I live in NY State and I was told by an insurance agent that NY state law prohibits insurance companies from excluding those with pre-existing conditions.

      If Romney gets elected and the House stays majority Republican…. your relative might benefit by moving to NY or another state with a similar law.

      • Towndump

        Thank you for the kind compliment. She needed major surgery and would have died without it. I couldn’t let that happen. She needs another, and possibly several more operations which is why she’s applying for disability. She left NY as she couldn’t afford to live here any more after being let go from her job of 29 years. She’s in Florida now as it’s warm and she doesn’t have to pay heating bills in the winter. She was also paying off some college loans for a child who can’t pay them herself as she too lost her job.  Guess that won’t be happening.

        Lots of solid citizens, hard workers, like my relative and her daughter have always lived paycheck to paycheck just to pay regular bills. Forget vacations or designer clothes. When they lose a job or get sick, their lives fall apart fast. Saving for retirement isn’t possible. It’s a dream for people with bigger paychecks.

        • Jane Hamilton

          She should move to MA. Benefits for poor people are so generous you can live a middle class lifestyle – free healthcare, food stamps, subsidized housing . Even better if you have children, in which case you do not even need to work or are an immigrant especially latino- lots of the workers in these offices are latino and they will advise you on how to best take advantage of the system.

          • Pembquist


  • Guest55

    401(k) plans are one of the worst things that have ever happened to this country.  In your plan, please add a saving mechanism where small local and regional banks can get in on the retirement savings actions, not just the Wall Street speculation firms.

    401(k) plans funnel billions of bucks to a few select companies listed on the various stock exchanges.  Executives convinced their BODs the increase in the stock was due to their leadership, instead of  millions of us working folks who contributed to inflating their stocks via our 401(k) contributions.  This has contributed to the large inequities in income and wealth in this country.

    Our contributions have been funneled through Wall Street instead of main street via our local banks. This has provided massive amounts of capital to large corporations, so now all mid-size towns have big-box retail stores on their peripheries while their downtowns have been crippled.

    Large international corporations have also used our 401(k) contributions to invest heavily in overseas plants and  move manufacturing overseas, rather than invest in North America.  Row we’re seeing the results of that.

    Thanks, for your insights.

    • HopelessAboutChange

      I stopped giving my money directly to the Wall Street thieves in 2008. I take the amount I would have put in and make principal payments on my mortgage instead.

      The money still winds up there in the long run, but it least I’m not sweating the next 2000 point Dow Jones crash.

  • Alan

    Hi Theresa,
    I know there are some 401k plans out there with huge expense ratios, 1.5% – 2.5%, which is obviously a stiff headwind to suffer year after year.  I don’t know how companies can in good conscience choose such plans for their employees, except that the multi-billion dollar industry depends on their doing so.  My wife and I are lucky to have access to the few low cost index-oriented fund companies in our 403b plans.
    What is your opinion of the “Thrift Savings Plan”?  It seems to offer index funds to federal employees in their retirement accounts at very very low expense rates.  Shouldn’t this be available to everyone?  Why do we need so many thousands of salespeople, “managers”, and other non-productive expenses that year after year siphon off their respective cuts from our invested retirement savings?

  • Good Question for YOU


    I am 59 years old.  Nine years ago I put 136k into an annuity which matures around my 60th Birthday.  The amount in the annuity is now around 176k.  I purchased a GRIP rider so that my benefit at annuitization would be tied to the highest balance (which was around 200k).   The benefit will be approximately 850.00/month for the rest of my life.

    This doesn’t seem like a good deal to me.   I figured I have to live to 87 to get my money back!  I don’t think I am going to live that long.  I also have an IRA in the amount of about 170k.  I am a widow and I am currently underemployed and am making an amount way below the poverty line, though I am starting to look for more lucrative employment.  

    Should I just cash out next year and put my money in CD’s?

    PS.  The annuity is John Hancock Venture III


    • Jane Hamilton

      850 a month is equivalent to about 6% Can you guarantee that you can do better than that for life? If so then you might want to cash out, but I do not see this being likely. The annuity is pretty safe.

  • Kathryn

    I, too, would REALLY like to know where we are supposed to put our retirement money where is can get earn at least enough to keep up with inflation and not be at risks of disappearing.  Could you please discuss these options?

    1. Isn’t there some kind of semi-government managed retirement savings program for people in the military?  How is that working?   Could something like that be expanded? 
    2. A few years ago, I might have been interested in “buying in” to a state-run pension plan…but these day so many, including ours in Michigan, are having trouble from poor returns and underfunding.  How do we know that a bigger fund will necessarily be run better?

    3.  What about places like Vanguard or TIAA/CREF?  Are they also ripping us off with large fees, or are they good alternatives for investing?

  • Gglasb

    What percentage of my gross yearly income should I be saving for retirement? Max 401k contribution is $17,000… which I make. I just want to know how much more you would suggest…the $2 million amount is disheartening.

  • Jeanne

    Thank you, thank you for bringing in this guest, and to Teresa for the research and the courage to bring it to the people and the “policy makers”.   

    This has seemed like a silent epidemic to me: people of all ages, but esp. those in their fifties to sixties, that have lost jobs and income since 2008 (and take years to find new work, often at less pay) will have/do have a tremendous loss to their retirement savings and their ability to save in the future.  Some are forced into an early retirement that they are not prepared for.  
    What will this scenario look like as young people work to try to support Social Security and a vastly greater number of older people have almost nothing to live on? 

    Our family was without the breadwinner job for 2 years–and we burned through our 6 months of savings, forcing us to regularly bleed our 401K (turned IRA).   

  • Carrie G.

    Thank you Teresa for bringing new ideas to this issue.  My 30 year old daughter asked me just last weekend – what’s the ‘number’?  I explained to her that it depends…on your debts, the rates of return on safe investments at the time you retire, on the age you retire.  My husband has a firefighter pension – thank God, because we can live a comfortable retirement – certainly not luxurious by any means.  Our IRA, which I have invested very well I think, would not amount to enough to supplement our Social Security.  He must start withdrawing next year – we will take the minimum to try and preserve the principle.  But I get weak thinking – what if we actually needed to live off the 4% of the IRA?  And we have saved a LOT!  We own our home free and clear, own our vehicles, etc.  I feel extremely fortunate, and worry terribly about friends and family who have not been as fortunate or as frugal.

  • Roadtrek Girl

    Student Loans are a major problem now and into the future of our children and their families. The government has created an immense income stream from the interest they Have saddled our young people with. It is financially crippling these kids who aspired to get a good education and better themselves. This problem extends to the parents of these students. Parents who should be saving for their retirement are now having to open up their homes and wallets to subsidize the graduates who in the past generations would have been “launched” into their own futures through their higher education.

    Perhaps at the very least:
      1)Somehow, get higher education costs under control. I can’t believe the luxurious renovations higher education’s campuses have experienced the last 15 years as tuitions sky rocketed as the economy was struggling. I know it is a competitive market but come on! People are struggling out there. 
    **I believe there was some sort of reform for school which receive federal funds (vast majority), making sure the schools were using a certain percentage for financial aid–more of this needs to be done, particularly for graduate students.

    2)Lenders need to extend a considerable discounted rate and fees to those students who are serious about there studies and achieve the GPA’s and/or other academic accomplishments to demonstrate their potential. Reward their hard work! let those who go just for the party pay the high rates if they must be paid

    3)Quit giving so many scholarships to foreign student athletes–there should be a limit!! it is ridiculous how many free rides are given to NON-US citizens, if all schools had a limit. Many of these non US Citizens then receive permission to stay in our country to take jobs after school while our kids are saddled under stifling education debt.

  • Roadtrek Girl

    My biggest current problem is my sons law school costs. I had successfully saved for his undergrad and even his graduate MBA leaving him with no student loans. 

    He worked for 2 years to save for Law School–but even with that he is still going to have to borrow 100,000 or more to get through-I have been doing what I can, taking money from my retirement to keep those loans down with hopes of investing in my son is a good bet for my future as well.

    My problem is how much from my investments to help keep his student debt down is too much? Interest rates for graduate students is much highter than undergrad. Government and private lenders begin at 6.9 percent for the first few thousand borrowed and go up from there–most have interest which accrues immediately and adds to the principle until he finishes school as do the  fees, etc and go up and up–ridiculous!!

    Education and Healthcare costs–no valid way to invest for our retirement–our country is drowning in the greed of a few–I am 53 and terrified-I have saved and invested in income property since I was 27, thinking I would be set to retire.

    Good to have a place to rant–but need advice about managing my son’s law school debt and how much should I take from my future to invest in

    • Jane Hamilton

      Your son is young, strong and healthy from the sounds of it so he should be financing his OWN education at this point. Seriously you already helped him with two degrees and now are helping with a third. That is ridiculous. At your age your entire focus should be on your retirement savings.

    • guest

      Dear Roadtrek Girl,
      I’m in exactly the same position as you are (only I’m a year older than you).  My son is also a recent college grad and is now living at home to save $ for law school – he’s making $5.15/hour plus tips delivering pizzas – ugh!  We’ve got a great law school (CU) 20 minutes away from us.  He could go there and live at home and thereby cut his costs by at least 1/3 but he absolutely refuses to agree to do that.

        So he took the lsat (after working really hard studying for it).  He got a great score.  That time studying was $ well spent.  Hopefully, he’ll get a scholarship – but even if he doesn’t, I’m finished paying for “higher”  education.  Been paying for college, etc since I was 21 years old and I am not paying another dime for it.  He’s on his own and if he wants to go out of state for law school, then he’s going to be in debt for a # of years.  I am not eating cat food in my retirement years just because he wouldn’t listen to common sense.

      If your son’s lsat score isn’t high enough to qualify him for some serious scholarship $ at wherever he wants to go, then I would suggest you spend $1350 on an lsat prep course and get him to UP that score – that’s where the scholarship $ comes in.  Before taking the lsat, my son only scored a 151 on the lsat.  After the prep course (and hours of studying) he upped that score to 167.  Not perfect, but good enough to be eligible for scholarships which will more than pay for the $1350 I paid for the prep course.  Best of luck.

  • Ivan D. Pereira

    1. the # ’65′ needs to be retired. Franklin Roosevelt in 1945  wanted a ‘pension’ to show Americans that the war was over and that the government was now looking after them after their sacrifices in the war. An advisor came to a White house meeting on a Sunday, and he said the pastor was quoting the Bible about ‘four score and ten’ and 70 was the right retirement age. Roosevelt wanted more people to get a pension, so he decreased the number by 5 to ’65′. It had nothing to do about ‘ageing’. In fact the life expectancy was 63 in the U.S. in 1945. 
    2. From what we know about the ‘mind-body relationship’, we are are ‘ageing’ accordingly to 65. We need to start banishing it from our lexicon. We should move away from a work like a dog to retire with a good pension to a model of having quality of life all through our lives. If there is enough money, retire earlier and do what you like. if you love your job or business, go part-time, hire a manager, etc.. The old model is senseless, but governments and companies should be required to meet their responsibilities and not cut back on their commitments to those who have already contributed. 3. In life-long planning, should be a combination of term insurance (because you get a lot for less) and investments. I am not convinced that mutual fund fees rob families of 20% to 40% of their savings. An aggressive fund charges about 2.5% annually in Canada, about 2% for a growth fund, and this even when a fund did not make money in a given year. But in that year, there is more activity and research needed, so it does not make sense cutting the fees. There may be a need for reform. In Canada, no mutual fund has gone bankrupt since the 1930s when they started. the reason is that the regulations are stricter, and a fund company has to hire a bank to be custodian of the money. They can only trade, not touch the money for other reasons. 4. Norman Dacey wrote the book, ‘What’s Wrong with your Life Insurance’ in 1966, and there have been several editions since. Amazing, without computers available, he took a typical whole life insurance policy sold by New York Life insurance Company in 1954, for $100,000 and costing about $1400 a year. A decreasing term policy that year cost about $350 a year. He calculated what the difference would yield in a random sample of 49 mutual funds, including the best and worst, and a composite of all 49. That is meticulous work over a 20 year period. The funds had over 10 times the saving, and this money was separate from the insurance policy and not locked in, where you get one or the other, and can only borrow your savings. 5. The Ralph Nader research group in Washington also studied the insurance industry in some detail, and argued that buy term and invest the difference was the best solution for a family financial health.6. President Carter commissioned a report on the insurance industry. It stated that an average insurance policy yields less that 3%. Carter sent a copy to all 50 governors and asked them to look at insurance reform. The industry (the three main CEOs) met with Carter and later with Governor Dukakis of Massachusetts and argued strongly against reform, threatening Dukakis that they would pull out altogether out of his state. 7. Life expectancy today is 82 for men and 84 for women. Also, we do not start work at 15 and 16 like a century ago, but spend more time in school, and many want to retire earlier at 60, some at 55. It means that we are close to spending more time in retirement than in the workplace, like 25 years, and we are having difficulty ‘financing’ that retirement, with inflation and market downturns like in 2008. In my view, the model has to be drastically revised, and we will not ‘slog’ at work to finance a comfortable retirement, only to find that we have diabetes and other illnesses, and we have in a sense wasted a  lot of years, when we should be also learning to ‘smell the roses’ through all our life changes. Keep in mind, too, that the rest of the world follows with a vengeance (literally) what you do in the U.S.. So, there is a larger global responsibility, which you have as a big power that many peoples admire. Many countries passed legislation making 65 as a mandatory retirement milestone/threshold, and some of these countries had a life expectancy of under 50. How ridiculous is that !- IvanIvan D. PereiraOttawa & Montreal, Canada www.guidepost21.blogspot.com (‘mental health & diversity’ on our planet)

    • Democademocatt

       “mutual fund fees rob families of 20% to 40% of their savings”

      That’s not what she said.  It’s 20-40% of your earnings.  So if you pay 2% of funds under management in fees, and earn a 6% return before fees, then you are losing 33.3% of your earnings to fees.

  • Michaelp

    Your ideas are wonderful.  People should get into the savings mode, no matter how little they can contribute every week. Proper investments grow over time. But there is no way that the average person can sort through all the investment choices that make brokers rich.  Even Elie Weisel, with all his intellectual ability but probably lacking in investment ability, was taken in by a charlatan named Bernie, who was typically operating only for himself.

    There is a simple solution.  The U.S. government offers its employees a no-brainer.  It is primarily an index fund approach.  It take little thinking for the investor.  And its fees are low.  It would eliminate all confusion. 
     Employees can choose to invest in any of six funds or spread 
    investments across six funds, all professionally and securely 
    managed by an independent Government agency, the Federal 
    Retirement Thrift Investment Board.  The six TSP investment 
    funds have included: 
    • Government Securities Investment (G) Fund 
    • Fixed Income Index Investment (F) Fund 
    • Common Stock Index Investment (C) Fund 
    • Small Capitalization Stock Index Investment (S) Fund 
    • International Stock Index Investment (I) Fund 
    • Lifecycle (L) Fund. “

    U.S. taxpayers theoretically hire these government
    employees.  Why should we “employers” not benefit from the same plan?

    • guest

      The above kinds of funds have been offered in the private sector for years (search Vanguard).  

  • Ivan D. Pereira

    I believe that the exact figure for the President Carter report on the insurance industry was 1.3% return on the savings in an insurance policy, that was the average. Re. passing legislation to force citizens to save an additional %5 from their income, it will have to go into a basket of investments for a combination of safety and returns, so bashing mutual funds is not the answer. I am not a spokesman/apologist for mutual funds, and I am sure the experts can look at reforms. But essentially one wants a basket. What has happened with your health care reform is that the compromise with legislators who believe in private plans because they are ‘cheaper’ to the citizen, in their view, has ended up with a huge windfall down the road, as some observed have noted (I am not privy to the details). 
    Bear in mind that ‘ideology’ or ideas about how we should govern ourselves and distribute the wealth is all about serving people, serving communities,  and nations. There is nothing sacrosanct about ideology as if it were some ‘tablets’ cast in stone  that fell from Mount Sinai. So it is really very unfortunate for the whole world that your legislators go that route, and the talk-show hosts go that route. 

  • Pcseagrave


    When the government established the social security system, they promised that the monies collected would alway be there for the coming generations of retirees. The reality is that they have now borrowed the funds and there is no gaurantee that the monies that I have contributed (I’m 58 right now) will be there when I become eligible.
    To think I would give more of my earnings to the Federal government to manage is ludicrous.

    Peter S
    Las Vegas

  • Aukland Kathy

    My husband and I are about 8 years away from retirement(61 years old)  and make about $100,000 combined. We have debt of about $50,000 with about $200,000 in retirement accts.
    Highest credit card  interest rate is 10%(we have been diligently paying off more than what is min payment)(yes I know too little too late?) (better late than never?)  would it be best to pay off one credit card, pay the taxes so we can free up some income as we are living less than paycheck to paycheck.

    • Jhnfletcher21

       If you need a loan contact me on asap because i can help you as long we work together based on trust and understanding if you know that you are not capable of paying back the loan please do not contact me, thank you.


  • Fsdbm2

    Instead of tax breaks, incentives, new government agencies, and vast new bureaucracies, wouldn’t it be easier to limit fees that can be charged to accounts owned by qualified retirement accounts?  Even individual states could handle that — with a single page of regulations.

  • Isobel

    Anyone interested in this subject (anyone over 50, at the very least!) should also be interested in an ambitious new book called “The People’s Pension,” about Social Security and almost a century of efforts to shrink it, shrink the pool of people who contribute to and benefit from it (that was theoretically all of us), privatize it so it’s only there if you’re lucky, kill it outright.  It’s an amazing story, and it’s not over.   Unless and until we stop paying attention anyway.   By a really thoughtful journalist who specializes in finance and economics, Eric Laursen.

  • Holmeskrys

    Theresa and Robin, thank you so much for bringing this important discussion to the airwaves. Once we get past our anger and frustration, we all (at least the 99%) have some very important decisions to make. As long as our government and our elections are run by the rich we cannot hope for Congress to address or even understand the needs of the people. But retirement, and the greater economy, is not a Democratic or Republican issue–it is a human being issue. If we are willing to address this issue together, no matter our political alliances, we can solve the problems facing us together.

    I believe Theresa has a great suggestion here.

    Remember not only to vote in November, but don’t forget to contact your Congressperson.

  • pk_sea

    Haven’t the baby boomers done enough to f*ck up this country?  Now they want to steal people’s retirement accounts?  The greatest generation gave birth the the selfish generation.

  • guest

    My apologies if I heard the program incorrectly, but did you actually advocate an option to invest in state pension plans?  The same plans which are, in most states, incredibly underfunded?  The same plans that, in many states, have been raided by politicians in times of budget hardship, so they can spend more money?  Not to mention those 2 most upstanding characters, Illinois and California, that are on the brink of bankruptcy?

    • Democdemocatat

      Underfunding is a completely different concept from investment performance.  Although the defined benefit plans are underfunded (i.e., they don’t have enough money to pay promised defined benefit retirement benefits, because employers failed to fund them), that doesn’t mean that, on the whole, their investment performance is not far better than you can achieve individually.  They are managed by professional money managers. They pay much lower investment fees than you do – investment fees as a percentage decrease as you have more funds under management.  Also, they can diversify far more than you can.  And, they have access to investments you would never have access to.  They average more than 8% annually over long periods of time. Allowing all employees to invest in these publicly managed funds would be a huge benefit for employees. 

    • Margaret

      I might add to support unsustainable and lofty defined benefit plans for union protected government workers.  That’s why the rest of us are broke.  

  • Lawrence

    Just maybe if the Social Security system we were forced to pay into all of these years actually worked, we would not have to have millions to retire. Health related costs eat up a significant chunk of retirement savings.

    It is so bad that only the bottom of the barrel providers are desperate enough to accept it. You receive substandard care and even though you paid into the system you STILL have to pay for SS with monthly premiums. Since it covers practically nothing, you have to STILL pay even more for supplementary coverage.

    Then when you get sick and need a heart operation you STILL have a bill of $40,000.

    READ the People’s Pension. Call your congressperson.


  • Dan

    Pretty scary article, and while it contains some truth, does not show a solution beyond government programs which is not a popular idea now.   And another government program is not needed since we have what we need, just more education is required.

    No couple needs 100k a year to live in retirement.  A couple can live on much less than 100k a year if they live in a low cost state like Texas.  We are fortunate to live there because we could pay off our house and stay out of debt.  We were fortunate to have income above 100K as a couple when working but we didn’t live that high, saved the max and now we continue to live around 50K a year as a couple.  

    SS for us will amount to about half of the 50K, leaving us to fund the other 25K.  I guess that means we need around 600K saved to do that.  That is a lot of money but if a couple both works and starts young it is possible.  You do not need 2M to retire, that is just crazy.

  • Merv42

    If our expectations build upon the experience of the past 50-60
    years, we might benefit from focusing more on the more recent than the those that
    preceded them.  Sixty years ago, much of
    the world was devastated by WWII, US was the unchallenged world power, and the US
    debt was owed to the US public.  Did we
    pay for WWII by off balance sheet accounting and by borrowing from others? 

    Our power and preeminence has permitted us to gather assets
    from around the world.  We’ve been rich
    like none other ever before, but our vision has been short sighted.  We knew there was a baby-bubble, an army of
    young to support the far less numerous retired, but if anyone took a longer
    term look, we preferred to see projected earnings based upon dotcom and housing
    bubble economics.  Our faith in bubbles
    lacked understanding, but we continue to pursue the lifestyle they temporarily
    permitted, after all, “We have rights and entitlements.”

    If you wish you were younger and could have started saving
    earlier, please consider that the younger will be far outnumbered by the baby
    boomers, who will be retired, will want to be supported in the manner to which
    they have become accustomed, or better, and will vote. 

    Do we seek to understand the process or want a mythical and magic
    solution?  As strange as it sounded, many
    could find truth in the Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s statement that economics
    isn’t just about money and material benefits, but is also about understanding and
    promoting “the enhancement of well-being.” 
     Having the most and biggest toys,
    vacations and medical procedures may not be the most meaningful life.

    “The pursuit of happiness” is pretty open-ended.  It doesn’t suggest to me the image of a couch
    potato, but freedom of religion provides room for many options.  Good luck and enjoy.

  • Anne

    Let me understand.  The government has done such a great job with Social Security that we should hand over more of our money to save us in retirement?  Saving for the future and investing outside 401k’s starting in your 20′s should get you to 15 times salary by the time you retire.  Why oh why do we always assume government can do it better than individuals can?  People have become so dependent on government that no one bothers to save.  Sad.

  • Factsrme

    get rid of the 401K which allowed for the rich to become richer and the pensions will come back. Xerox got the 401K system through for their 1% and it has destroyed (via loophole) the 99%. Check it out.

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