This is the only retirement guide you'll ever need

Who wants to live such a long time, given the retirement headlines?

When it comes to Americans and retirement, it seems nothing works better at grabbing our attention than fright.

It's the headlines I'm talking about—the ones that describe how far behind we all are in amassing the nest eggs that will see us through the golden years without the daily terror of exhausting our savings or being forced to face cat food meals and coupon-clipping sessions.

If you aren't already rich—and didn't cash in on the last housing bubble and don't have a "fat," guaranteed government pension or anticipate a huge inheritance—the headlines about retirement could easily lead you to conclude that you will never be able to retire, expiring at your desk while surfing the Internet for reverse mortgages and high-yielding bond investments (Henry Winkler, Robert Wagner and Belize CCC minus-rated bonds will never have looked so good).

But I don't need to remind you about all of this. What good does it do, anyway?

One word: Branding

Martti Salmela | E+ | Getty Images

Consider the source for almost all of the headlines and research conducted by the financial services companies. They could work with the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) on an annual retirement confidence survey—the longest-running annual retirement confidence survey in the U.S., with a 25-year history—for as little as $9,500, gaining access to all of the data from the 70-question survey.

Instead, financial services companies go out and spend "well over $100,000" to do their own comprehensive surveys year after year, or they opt for a cheaper, snapshot survey—say, five questions—with an organization like Gallup, said EBRI president Dallas Salisbury. Why?

"A single word speaks to it, and that is branding," Salisbury said. A financial services company with a big 401(k) business and/or family of mutual funds wants to be the one you turn to when you stand up and admit that you have a retirement problem. They prefer to call it "thought leadership," but that's just a mouthful to make branding seem intellectual.

There is also a reason why so many of the retirement headlines are so alarming.

"People are always looking for what to do with a headline to maximize the potential someone will publicize the survey. Bad news sells," Salisbury said. "If the name of the sponsor is mentioned, they've met the branding objective. It's more PR than the other side, which is the underlying attempt to create an outcome," he added.

That outcome being that you start saving, or save more, for retirement.

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"We all know most people aren't on track for retirement," said Morningstar's head of retirement research David Blanchett. "I think surveys that talk about poor savings in the U.S., or the fact that people haven't saved enough for retirement, are relatively worthless. Kind of like saying, 'The sky is blue'" (not much value there).

None of it would be possible without the partner in crime to the financial services companies—me, or more broadly, the entire financial media, and in particular, the online financial media, which does so well in terms of generating clicks based on the old, reliable "fear and greed" philosophy.


Workers spend more time planning vacation than retirement
(CNNMoney, Aug. 19, 2014, based on Schwab survey)

Planning your retirement? Prepare to live on less
(CBS Moneywatch, Jan. 8, 2015, based on Transamerica survey)

Twenty-two percent of Americans would rather die than retire without enough money
(Huffington Post, Oct. 27, 2014, based on Wells Fargo survey)

Retirement savings fears grip Americans: 'I don't have enough'
(, June 9, 2014, based on Gallup poll)

For many Americans, retirement won't be golden
(, Dec. 1, 2014, based on EBRI annual study)

And my all-time favorite ...

Wave of surveys show Americans unprepared for retirement
(ThinkAdvisor, Dec. 11, 2014)

Let me give you what I think is the best example of all—and incriminate myself in the process.

A little over a year ago, I was reading through an annual Wells Fargo retirement survey looking for a lead, and I came across a finding that caught my eye: a significant number of Americans who thought they would never be able to retire. It turned out this was the first time Wells Fargo had ever asked that question. I went with the ever-so-delicate headline, "Six feet under as a retirement plan?"

Needless to say, one of my greatest successes ever in terms of clicks and shares—and (sadly) I knew it would be before ever hitting Publish.

The financial services industry retirement survey-online financial media complex is a productive one. They get the branding, and we get the traffic.

Igniting the fear factor

"Individuals don't spend a whole lot of time doing any planning or thinking about retirement until it happens, and that's a 25-year finding," Salisbury said

Forced to choose between the two ends of the spectrum—the good old days, when employees took on faith that they were all set for retirement, or a large portion of today's workers, who assume they won't have enough—Salisbury chooses the endless bad news for no other reason than it causes more focus on preparing.

And now for some good news

"The basic value of these types of 'pop psychology' articles is to increase overall interest in financial literacy and retirement planning. This is the first step in nudging the general public to start to open a retirement plan at work and then hopefully hire a financial planner," said Victor Ricciardi, finance professor at Goucher College and co-editor of "Investor Behavior: The Psychology of Financial Planning and Investing" with Kent Baker.

And EBRI research finds that the needle is moving: The amounts saved are going up a little, and the age at which people start to save is going down.

"I fear that in dwelling so incessantly on clients' futures, many financial advisors have no time left to focus on clients' present needs and wants." -Tim Maurer, director of personal finance at BAM Alliance

Though there is a risk.

"My concern with the studies is they often talk of despair vs. hope," Morningstar's Blanchett said. "I think more emphasis on how 401(k)s are helping, what activities help improve participant outcomes, would be far more useful." He added, "Scare tactics may move the needle some, but I think things like automatic enrollment (or even so far as mandatory contributions) are what's necessary."

A call to action

Here's a modest proposal: Make this the last retirement guide you ever read. Begin with the assumption that you are not saving enough. Then come to the realization that you just wasted a little time reading rather than working on your plan to actually save.

Add a recurring item to your smartphone calendar that once a month will alert you to the fact that your retirement is still at risk and that you could be saving more and it's time for a checkup. You can set up as many alerts as you like (I've included a handy list at the end of this article).

"The financial industry has an economic bias to use endless scary retirement surveys to attract assets on which they can charge fees and commissions," said Tim Maurer, director of personal finance at BAM Alliance and a CNBC Financial Advisor Council member. "I fear that in dwelling so incessantly on clients' futures, many financial advisors have no time left to focus on clients' present needs and wants."

But you didn't need another article to tell you that, did you?

Here is a helpful list of retirement tasks to input as smartphone calendar prompts so you stay on top of your retirement throughout the year.

Time to check your contribution level! If it is not at the maximum, consider if you have had any positive change in your income/financial situation that might allow you to increase it. On the other hand, consider if you are contributing too much: You may not want to save more than the company match if you have revolving credit card debt. You can "earn" a 20 percent rate of return (after-tax, risk free) paying down credit card debt, while you'd be lucky to make half that investing in a 401(k).

Time to consider a target-date fund! If you aren't already using one, see if your plan offers one—it's the simplest way to invest in a retirement portfolio that is designed to match your risk tolerance as you age.

Time to take an online risk assessment! Five minutes of your time is all it takes to see if the funds you are invested in match your risk/return tolerance. (If you are using target-date funds, you can skip this exercise.)

Time to make sure that fund fees are justified! Most 401(k)s now offer index options, even if not from the company regarded as the lowest-cost index fund provider, the Vanguard Group. See if the cost of any actively managed fund you use is merited based on its performance in the past one-year, three-year and five-year periods versus its index benchmark.

Time to make sure you are not using too many funds! Choice is great, but if your 401(k) account is spread across a dozen funds just because you thought it was correct to check off every fund on the plan menu, you probably should be using a target-date fund instead. Most investors don't have the sophistication to create a custom portfolio that's going to be any more productive than a target-date offering. Bear in mind: The total number of funds is less an issue than overlap of stocks held in multiple funds (which is when you are really and truly wasting money). There's a good chance that if you thought of a 401(k) fund menu as an opportunity to go on a shopping spree, then it's likely you've now got at least a few funds that really aren't necessary.

Time to see what your advisor has done for you lately! If you are paying for a financial advisor to oversee your retirement account or provide additional advice/recommendations, make sure they are actually providing you with services that merit the cost. What have they done that goes beyond the basics of any 401(k) platform?

Time to review any previous employer plans! Make sure that you roll over assets into an IRA or new employer-sponsored plan (if allowed) before your account is closed and a lump-sum (taxable) check issued. Only stay in a previous employer plan if the employer allows it AND the fees are lower than you would be able to find in an IRA or new employer plan.

Time to go to the Social Security Administration website! Use its retirement benefits estimator to see how much you can expect to receive based on your earnings record (this should sufficiently scare you, especially when you consider one long-term EBRI finding that has barely budged over the past 40 years: The percentage of Americans that rely on Social Security as their main retirement income source has been around 60 percent since the 1970s. For 36 percent of Americans, it's their only source.