A strategy with better odds than a lottery ticket

I may joke that winning the lottery will be the only way I'll afford retirement, but that doesn't mean it's my financial plan.

I've been saving for retirement through an Individual Retirement Account and various employers' 401(k) plans for years. No one forced me to do it. I viewed it as a way of paying myself, or rather, my future self.


While it can be disconcerting to open those quarterly account statements when the securities markets have gone south, it's been quite comforting lately to see the money I've deferred from my paycheck growing again.

Still, what passes for my plan is more notions than firm statistical goals. And in the absence of those hard numbers, I am like the vast majority of Americans who have failed to plan for their retirement.

The Employee Benefit Research Institute, which has conducted a survey on "retirement confidence" in each of the last 21 years, said that only 42 percent of workers surveyed this year reported that they or their spouse have tried to calculate how much money they will need to retire comfortably. That figure hasn't changed much since 2003, come boom or bust.

Another survey, a first-time one spearheaded by ING Direct, an Internet bank, and DailyWorth.com Inc., a financial e-mail aimed at women, turned up findings straight out of the "Ozzie and Harriet" era. More than one in three married women said their spouse handles all of the retirement planning. And eight in 10 women say they lack the financial savvy about retirement planning.

I found the results somewhat shocking, given how many women ably balance their household budgets and excel in the managerial ranks of the business and nonprofit worlds. After all, this phone survey of 1,000 adults was conducted in late March 2011, not 1951.

I asked MP Dunleavey, DailyWorth editor-in-chief and longtime personal- finance columnist, what accounts for the fear reflected in the survey. In part, we might blame our pop media culture in which older women don't exist, she wrote in an e-mail.

"The older woman is virtually invisible, except in arthritis commercials," she writes. "We look into the depicted future and see . . . nothing. That's hard to plan for, hard to feel optimistic about, hard to connect with."

Even so, how can this be when we're practically drowning in information designed to help us create financial plans on our own? The Nielsen Co. estimates that there are 4,100 personal-finance websites. There are investing programs on the financial news networks, and shelf after shelf of books importuning us to "win your financial future."

Dunleavey, who says she has focused on women and finance for more than five years, said many women don't learn from those types of media, and you can blame it partly on the financial lingo.

"Many women need more of a dialogue, more conversation, more informal interactions to feel capable and fluent in their own finances," she writes.

And that's part of what she and DailyWorth founder Amanda Steinberg are trying to do with their free financial e-mail that now has 70,000 women as subscribers.

Theirs is a private-sector effort to address what is a growing public concern for a country where life expectancy is expected to grow from 76.0 years in 1993 to 82.6 years in 2050. That's a long time to be financially illiterate.

A Brookings Institution paper from October on Americans' paucity of financial literacy discussed four traditional formats for boosting our financial smarts: Employer-provided financial education, mandated high school curriculum, credit and mortgage counseling services, and community-based programs through churches, banks, or nonprofits.

I wish I could tell you that the authors were able to isolate from the various research studies they reviewed what works best, but no such luck. Let's just say that various private-sector and public-sector entities are trying lots of things to boost literacy, but there's not much empirical evidence that it's working.

So I return to EBRI's Retirement Confidence Survey, which year-in and year-out shows that those efforts have not translated into action by those who are earning wages that might be directed into retirement plans.

Even if some can't imagine diverting $20 to $200 per week to a 401(k) plan or IRA, all of us need to plan what our lives will be like after we stop working. How will we spend our days? Perhaps volunteering (which sounds as if it costs only time) or fishing (which sounds as if it might require an expensive bass boat). But whatever those pursuits may be, there is a cost and it can be estimated.

Want a good reason to calculate what you'll need in retirement? EBRI says that you'll probably feel better about your chances if you do. Twenty-five percent of those who'd done such a calculation reported being "very confident" that they will be able to amass the amount they need.

The average retiree in Pennsylvania collects $875 per month in Social Security benefits, and I'll go out on a limb and say that's not going to cut it if you don't have a pension or savings to supplement that government check.

Only 13 percent of respondents to EBRI's 2011 survey described themselves as "very confident" about retirement. No wonder. About 56 percent say the total value of their household's savings and investments is less than $25,000. (That excludes the value of their house and pension plan.)

In contrast, Americans spent $58.8 billion on lotteries in the 12 months ended June 30, up 1 percent from the previous year, according to the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries.

The odds of winning the Power Ball lottery are 195 million-to-1; the odds of success in retirement planning have to be better than that - if we put more time and effort into it.


Contact columnist Mike Armstrong at 215-854-2980 or marmstrong@phillynews.com. See his blog at www.phillyinc.biz.