How long will you live?

(MoneyWatch) Learning how long you might live, and then letting the financial and lifestyle implications sink in, is the first step in my series, "16 Weeks to Plan Your Retirement."

Did you know that your life expectancy is influenced by both your family history and your lifestyle choices? You can estimate your life expectancy by taking both of these factors into account at www.livingto100.com or www.bluezones.com and using the life expectancy calculators you'll find there.

If you're in your 50s or 60s, you might find that you have another 20 or 30 years to live, maybe even 40 years. But it's important to understand that your estimated life expectancy isn't your destiny. It's entirely possible that you could live well beyond your life expectancy -- or fall short. The Society of Actuaries (SOA) sponsors a simple life expectancy calculator that shows you the range of possibilities for your life expectancy.

For example, according to the SOA calculator a 65 year-old woman has a 50-50 chance of living another 21 years. But she also has a 30 percent chance -- almost one out of three -- of living another 26 years. And she has a 20 percent chance, or one out of five, of living another 29 years to age 94.

Similarly, the SOA calculator shows that a 65 year-old man has a 50-50 chance of living another 18 years, a 30 percent chance of living another 23 years and a 20 percent chance of living another 26 years to age 91.

Unlike the other two life expectancy calculators mentioned above, however, the SOA calculator doesn't consider your family history or lifestyle choices when calculating results, so the estimated life expectancies are for the population at large. If you take care of your health by eating well, exercising, not smoking and not abusing alcohol, the odds of living longer than your projected SOA life expectancy could be higher than calculated.

The uncertainty surrounding how long you'll live is one of the important challenges of planning your retirement. It would be a lot easier to estimate how much retirement savings you'll need if you knew exactly how long you'll live. But when developing sources of lifetime retirement income, it's important to deal with this uncertainty.

Once you've estimated your life expectancy and find that you may be living another 20, 30 or 40 years, consider that it takes a boatload of money to be retired for that long. After all, how much money have you spent in the past 20, 30 or 40 years? Just suppose for a moment that you made and spent $50,000 in each of the last 30 years. Do the math -- that's $1.5 million!

While you'll probably need less than that during your retirement, it doesn't do much good to get frustrated about the amount of money you'll really need -- just accept this as an important factor in your planning.

In addition to prompting your thinking about your retirement years, there's a bonus for using one of the online life expectancy calculators mentioned above. After you've put in your numbers, the calculator can show you how your estimated lifespan might increase if you make certain changes to your lifestyle. These changes usually improve your health, which also reduces the odds of incurring expensive medical conditions.

In many of the upcoming posts over the next 16 weeks, I'll cover the steps you'll need to take to finance your retirement years. Meanwhile, stay tuned for my next post, which explores lifestyle considerations for the the rest of your life.

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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