The recent attempt by Kevyn Orr, Detroit's emergency manager, to reduce city worker pensions by 84 percent is the most dramatic example of a crisis facing public employees across the country.
Nor is the private sector immune, as thousands of miners discovered after Patriot Coal Corp. declared bankruptcy last year. The settlement reached between the United Mine Workers and parent company Peabody Energy 15 months later covers only one-quarter of retirees' health-care benefits.
"For the last 20 years, Big Brother Co. or a municipality was taking care of you," said certified financial planner Clark Kendall, president of Kendall Capital Management. "Now the individual has to be responsible for his financial success."
Many pensions are underfunded by 20 percent to 30 percent, Kendall added, because people are now living longer. "Unless you plan on dying quicker than expected, it's a countrywide problem."
(Read more: Like it or not, a budget's still your best bet)