Imagine planning for a vacation you'll be taking some 20, 30 or even 40 years from now. You don't know where it will be, how much it will cost or how long it will last, but you're tasked with saving a chunk of every paycheck toward that trip until the day you embark on it. You're not even sure how much to save or when you have saved enough. Crazy, huh?
Welcome to the world of retirement planning, in which everyone younger than retirement age is expected to anticipate future expenses, figure out the amount that will cover those costs throughout old age, and save like mad until they hit the magic number. Unlike previous generations, for whom employers did some of the saving in the form of pensions, current and future generations must sock away most or all of the savings themselves.
Not surprisingly, researchers, financial institutions and financial planners offer to help you set that amount, from multiples of final salary to percentages pegged to your preretirement income. But no one formula fits every person or life stage, says Steve Utkus, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Vanguard. "The further away you are from retirement age, the more uncertain the model."
Still, retirement formulas do help you focus on what you need to do, says Chuck Yanikoski, who developed RetirementWorks II, a financial-planning tool for people near or in retirement. Retirement benchmarks also keep you from overshooting or undershooting the mark. "A lot of people are stressed who don't need to be, and others are cheerfully heading into disaster," says Yanikoski. "Either way, you're better off knowing where you are."
Calculate your target
No matter what your age, you should have at least some idea of how much income you'll need in order to maintain your standard of living once you're out of the workforce. Retirement analysts generally set the number at 70% to 85% of preretirement household income. That's not because you'll be expected to skimp in your old age, but rather because some costs, such as payroll taxes, money set aside for retirement saving and work expenses, will disappear and others, such as your income taxes, could drop.
To keep it simple, Fidelity arrives at the 85% replacement rate by multiplying your final salary by eight. The calculation includes Social Security but doesn't factor in dual incomes; it assumes you'll retire at 67 and spend down your nest egg over 25 years. Fidelity also gives you savings mileposts: Save one times salary at age 35, three times salary at 45 and five times salary at 55. "The idea is to give people a rule of thumb so they know whether they're on track while they have time to make adjustments," says Jeanne Thompson, a Fidelity vice-president.
Aon Hewitt, which provides bookkeeping services for 401(k) plans, sets a benchmark of 11 times final salary, and others use still other criteria. But the precise number isn't as important as the overall message. "These are all just calls to action to be an aggressive saver," says Utkus. "If you've only saved five times your salary and Fidelity or Vanguard says seven, you know to get on the stick."
If the quick-and-dirty formulas aren't precise enough for you, you'll have to do some fancy footwork. Arriving at a realistic figure to generate 70% to 85% of your preretirement income requires projecting how much your savings will earn before and during retirement, how old you'll be when you retire, the rate at which you'll withdraw your savings, and how much income you'll get from other resources, such as pensions and Social Security. If you're married, you need to calculate joint income and expenses as well as post-retirement distribution strategies. "We're all making assumptions and guesses about the future," says Rob Reiskytl, partner for retirement consulting at Aon Hewitt.