The New Retirement Realities for Generations X and Y

Here's how to overcome big financial obstacles to help create a path to happy retirement.

Young adults like us face tough financial realities today. For example, 10% of 2008 college graduates left school with $40,000 or more in student debt, and paying it off is harder than ever. Get this: The median income for 25- to 34-year-olds in 2009 was $50,199 -- 7.6% lower than it was in 1999, after adjusting for inflation.

And I’m here to warn you that other trends add up to even more financial challenges in the future. But should we give up hope that we’ll ever retire comfortably? Heck no. Quite the opposite: Those of us who accept these unfortunate economic realities now can take control of our finances and overcome hurdles we’ll surely encounter in the future. Here are three challenges that Generations X and Y may face in retirement and how we can deal with them:

1) For most of us, the idea of a pension may be but a dusty memory. Employer-sponsored defined benefit pension plans, which were meant to guarantee income to retired employees, continue to become more and more elusive. According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, heads of households participating in only a defined benefit plan went down from 42.3% in 1992 to 18.1% in 2007. If you find a company that continues to offer a pension, be sure to factor in such a valuable benefit when considering employment there (see How to Choose the Right Job).

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For the unlucky majority of us who can’t count on pension payments for retirement income, come to terms with being on your own. “This generation has to remember: Your government and your company are not going to take care of you,” says Bill Losey, financial planner and author of Retire in a Weekend! “At the end of the day, it’s all going to fall upon you.”

So you need to start saving as soon as possible -- like right now. The biggest financial advantage of our youth is having time on our side. With enough years to grow, any pittance can become plentiful. For example, if you start saving $150 a month at age 40, you’ll have $54,000 by the time you turn 70. But if you start saving the same amount ten years sooner, you’ll have $72,000 by age 70.

If you invest, the additional years of saving can grow your nest egg even more. Earning 6% a year, the 40-year-old would net $150,677 by 70; the 30-year old would have nearly twice as much by age 70, with $298,724. Assuming an 8% annualized return (as we generally assume here at Kiplinger’s; see The 8% Solution) bumps the first person’s savings up to $223,554 after 30 years. But the second person’s nest egg more than doubles that: $523,651 after 40 years of saving.

2) Our Social Security checks will come later and be smaller. Murmurs of policy change grow louder every economically challenged day, and what the benefits program will look like in the future remains very fuzzy (see An Unhappy Birthday for Social Security). So Lynn Mayabb, senior managing advisor with BKD Wealth Advisors, in Kansas City, Mo., doesn’t even count Social Security when helping to plan retirement for her clients who were born in or after 1970. And to cover the 25% to 35% of retirement income that Social Security provides for retirees today, she says, we’ll need to increase our savings by 10% to 12%.

Sound impossible? Don’t sweat those big numbers for now. Starting out, Losey suggests that you put aside just 1% of each paycheck for retirement. Once saving 1% becomes routine, bump your savings up to 2%, then 3%. Keep adjusting it higher until you hit the savings rate necessary to reach your retirement goal. Plus, whenever you get a raise, bonus or any other additional income, add at least 1% of that to your retirement savings, as well.

You’ll find that these baby steps will eventually ease you into taking great savings strides. And the most important thing is that you get into the habit of saving. “You need to have the mindset that you’re paying a retirement bill,” says Mayabb. Add saving for retirement to your monthly budget and count it as a necessary expense.

3) Taxes are sure to take a big bite out of our savings' worth. With a national budget deficit topping $1 trillion (see What $1 Trillion Would Buy to help you wrap your head around that amount), it’s hard to imagine not having to pay higher taxes eventually, whether it’s next year or 20 years from now.

To avoid taxes later, stash your retirement cash in a Roth account, from which you can withdraw money in retirement tax-free. If your company offers a Roth 401(k), go for it. According to a survey by Hewitt Associates, 29% of companies offered this type of account in 2009, but another 25% said they were likely to offer it in 2010. If your company doesn’t offer it, talk to your human-resources people about the possibility. (Watch The Roth Idea Comes to the 401(k) for more information about this type of account.)

Otherwise, your company’s traditional 401(k) should still be the first stop for your retirement savings (see Why You Need a 401(k) Right Away for more about these accounts). Contribute enough to capture the maximum employer match. Then, consider also funding a Roth IRA to snag the tax-free withdrawal advantage (see Why You Need a Roth IRA).

Take the first step to overcoming these challenges

Arm yourself against all this uncertainty by making a plan with a specific goal. If circumstances -- such as a bad couple of years for the stock market -- derail your course, keeping an eye on your original target will make it easier to get back on track.

Start by using our retirement calculator to estimate your target dollar amount. Or you can check out the WealthRuler at -- it allows you to set a retirement date beyond 30 years from now (a limit of our own calculator). Your results will tell you whether you’re on schedule or falling short. If it’s the latter, the tool lets you adjust your monthly savings or your retirement age, showing you what you’ll need to do to reach your goal.

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Stacy Rapacon
Online Editor,

Rapacon joined Kiplinger in October 2007 as a reporter with Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine and became an online editor for in June 2010. She previously served as editor of the "Starting Out" column, focusing on personal finance advice for people in their twenties and thirties.

Before joining Kiplinger, Rapacon worked as a senior research associate at b2b publishing house Judy Diamond Associates. She holds a B.A. degree in English from the George Washington University.