Return on Retirement

Lackluster savings tarnishing seniors' golden years

Kris Timken | Digital Vision | Getty Images

Retiree dreams of lengthy vacations, days on the golf course and indulging the grandkids may be dust.

Most retirees haven't saved enough even to maintain their pre-retirement lifestyle, according to a new study from based on Census Bureau data. The rule of thumb among financial planners is saving to have a retirement income of at least 70 percent of your working-days salary.

Only residents of Washington, D.C., and Nevada are exceeding that mark, with the typical retiree's wage replacement ratio at 73.81 percent and 70.78 percent, respectively. Nationwide, residents age 65 and older are living on a median income of $37,847, for a wage replacement ratio of 59.63 percent. The bulk of that income is from Social Security, rather than savings.

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Cutting expenses in retirement
Cutting expenses in retirement

That makes for big changes from a working lifestyle, said Mike Sante, managing editor of Not only might there be no trips abroad, but seniors may also find it a struggle to meet regular expenses or create a cushion for emergencies or medical needs. "It's a pretty limited income for someone to live on," he said.

By the numbers, retirees are slightly more prepared than in 2011, when the wage replacement ratio was 57.41 percent, or in 2005, when it was 50.06 percent. But the bulk of that improvement stems from older adults staying in the workforce longer, said Sante, which he called "a strategy with an expiration date."

"I hear that a lot from people," said certified financial planner Andrea Blackwelder, co-founder of Wisdom Wealth Strategies in Denver. "They say, 'If the numbers don't work, then I'll work for a couple more years.' That choice may not be in your hands."

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Among retirees in a 2013 survey from the Society of Actuaries, 21 percent cited health problems as a reason they left the workforce, while 13 percent left because they needed to care for a family member. Another 13 percent lost their job.

In other words, working longer may be one option, but it shouldn't be the only strategy you employ—and definitely not the one you count on.

Even with just few years to go before retiring, boosting contributions to tax-advantaged retirement accounts can have a significant impact, said Marilyn Plum, a certified financial planner and director of portfolio management at Ballou Plum Wealth Advisors in Lafayette, California. (Keep in mind, workers age 50 and older can make catch-up contributions of an extra $5,500 in a 401(k) and $1,000 in an IRA.)

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That 70 percent wage replacement benchmark is also worth revisiting. There's a lot of flexibility in that number, said Blackwelder. "It's a fine place to start," she said. "But people shouldn't assume that if they hit 70 percent, they're good to go."

You might be able to get by on less, especially if you expect big changes from current expensessay, you'll have paid off your mortgage, won't have commuting and other work expenses, or you plan to move somewhere with a lower cost of living. Of course, you might need more than 70 percent of current wages, too, to fuel travel plans and other expensive hobbies, said Plum.

"Our clients want to live the same lifestyle they have always lived," she said. "They don't want to cut back 30 percent just because they're in retirement."