The Secret Formula That Will Make, or Break, Your Retirement

Last Updated May 23, 2011 10:54 AM EDT

When it comes to making their retirement work, managing their living expenses is the most common financial technique people use, according to a recent survey from the Society of Actuaries. For example, 90 percent of people approaching retirement say they want to eliminate all consumer debt, 80 percent want to pay off their mortgage before retirement, and 78 percent say they plan to cut back on spending.


So an essential part of your retirement planning is to prepare a budget of what you think your living expenses will be in retirement. Welcome to Week Eight of my series, 12 Weeks to Plan Your Retirement. Here we'll look at the second part of the magic formula for retirement security:

I > E, or

Income > Expenses


Conventional wisdom from financial planners says you need a retirement income that's equal to anywhere from 70 to 100 percent of your pay just before retirement. The thinking behind this advice is to provide you with the same amount of spendable income in retirement that you had before retirement (after you take into account reductions during retirement for income taxes, savings, and certain work-related expenses).

But this advice ignores the reality that your expenses can be substantially lower in retirement. And the higher your discretionary income, the more likely that you'll have a larger disparity between your pre-retirement and post-retirement living expenses.

Another problem with the conventional wisdom is that when you do the math, you find that you need a gazillion dollars to retire. So it's a good idea to take a long, hard look at your living expenses, and determine how much money you really need to cover your basic living expenses and afford only what truly makes you happy. It might take some time for you to finish this week's exercise, since I'll cover important parts of your retirement living expenses -- housing, insurance, medical bills and long-term care expenses -- in future posts of this 12-week series.

My previous post, How Much Retirement Income Do You Need?, discussed how your needs might change during retirement, and it offered suggestions for planning tools to help you prepare a retirement budget. You might want to review that post as part of this week's homework.

Developing your retirement budget will also help you think about the tradeoffs you might be willing to make to be able to retire. It might also inspire you to get creative to see how you can reduce your retirement living expenses. What is "just enough" to meet your needs and make you happy? Would you be willing to move out of the suburbs? Share housing to drastically cut your living costs? Become a dropout retiree?
How much is your retirement freedom really worth to you? The answer is different for everybody, but it's well worth your time to find the answer that works best for you.

Image from iStockphoto contributor STEEX
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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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