What is financial planning?
When asked this question, my answer is simple: Financial planning is the art and science of helping an individual or family create and maintain a lifestyle. Retirement planning, then, would be the path to maintaining that lifestyle throughout the future period of time when we either cannot or no longer want to work.
We often hear that there is a "retirement crisis " in this country, a fear on the part of many Americans that they won't be able to afford retirement. For many, this may indeed be correct. People even debate whether or not Social Security or Medicare will be around by the time they retire.
The retirement crisis is based on the fact that from the age we begin working, many of us create a lifestyle that cannot be maintained through retirement. Our need for instant gratification and our appetite to spend are seemingly insatiable.
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We have no built-in mechanism to control how we spend and what we spend it on. We have a difficult time limiting our response to all of the temptations dangled before us by the big-business sales machine, killing many of our financial dreams.
Yet, when the discussion of retirement planning is broached at younger ages, I have heard more excuses than I can count. I have to say, some are quite creative. Because retirement seems so far off in the future, today's "priorities" always supersede tomorrow's.
Let's face it: I have so much time until retirement, the thinking goes, that I can wait until next year to do something about it.
It all adds up
Therein lies the problem. Next year turns into next year, which turns into next year. And so on, and so on, until—uh-oh—now I am retirement age, and what do I do? We have all read the marketing materials describing how much more money we will accumulate if we start saving early.
It's simply a matter of basic mathematics, which I won't bore you with, but the 10-year difference between starting a savings program at age 20 versus age 30 represents a huge advantage. Of course, the longer we wait to get started, the bigger the hurdle we will have to overcome to secure a comfortable retirement.
The root of the problem is the lack of financial training we get throughout our education. While we are taught the skills we will need to get a job and earn money, we are not taught about austerity and truly prioritizing how our money is spent.
At every turn, there is something more important than retirement. A nicer car, a better smartphone, a bigger TV; the examples virtually never end. The further we are from retirement, the more important these luxuries seem at the moment. The problem is that a pile of obsolete electronics won't pay the bills when our retirement income is running out.
This makes it important to at least give thought to the long-term effects of our current spending habits. I always advise my clients that the more choices we have, the better off we will be. But we often make the poorest choices when we have the most options available, which can leave us with few or no choices later when we most need them.
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After a certain point in life, our ability to earn from working diminishes.This may be due to physical ailments, mental incapacities or the simple fact that after a certain age, finding a job gets more difficult.
If we haven't created a sufficient retirement-income plan and haven't saved enough over the years, we will be forced to choose between food, medicine and other essentials rather than deciding between the newest smartphones or whatever other technology happens to be hot at the time.
The possibility of affording further luxuries then lies far in our past.
Fortunately, most people can easily remedy this situation by starting a savings plan at as early an age as possible and by remaining vigilant to the plan. Many will feel that they can't save enough to make a difference.
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My contention is that something is better than nothing and that, over time, anything saved will be a benefit in the future.
In the more than two decades that my career has spanned thus far, I have met many people who are trying to play catch-up in later years because they did not start saving early enough. I have never, however, met a person who complained that they had accumulated too much money.
The moral of the story? Time can be your best friend or your worst enemy in regard to your retirement. Use it wisely and you will get where you are going.
—By Allan Katz, Special to CNBC.com. Allan Katz is a certified financial planner and president of Comprehensive Wealth Management Group.