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The top retirement fears, and how to tackle them

When thoughts turn to retirement, they often revolve around how one will enjoy this new-found leisure time. But those thoughts also land on some of retirement’s potentially more worrisome aspects. After all, much as most of us like to think of retirement as a carefree existence, we know well that no phase of life is without risks.

What sorts of things do workers fear most about retirement? According to a recent survey conducted by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies (TCRS), here are the top three:

  • Outliving their money (reported by 51 percent of survey respondents)
  • Social Security being reduced or eliminated (47 percent)
  • Declining health that requires long-term care (45 percent)

Approximately one-third of workers also fear cognitive decline such as dementia or Alzheimer’s (35 percent) and lack of adequate and affordable health care (32 percent).

These are all serious risks that deserve your attention. However, instead of living your life in fear, you can take steps to reduce the odds that these problems will happen to you and to mitigate the consequences if they do. Unfortunately, we have no way of totally eliminating the risks -- that’s the reality of life in today’s world.

Let’s look at each of these top three risks -- and even more important, the steps you can take to address them.

Outliving your money

If you’re thinking about retiring in your late 50s or 60s, you could easily need to generate retirement income for 30 years or more. It simply takes a lot of money to live for that many years -- it’s the consequence of the longevity revolution we’re experiencing.

Before getting too frustrated about this situation, consider the alternative: You could be dead before reaching your 60s or live just a few years after retiring, which happened to many people of prior generations. So let’s roll up our sleeves and figure out how to deal with our blessing of the gift of longevity.

The first step is to estimate how much money you’ll need, a step that only about half of workers take, according to many surveys. In fact, almost half (47 percent) of workers TCRS surveyed only “guessed” at the amount of savings they would need for a comfortable retirement, and only 9 percent used a retirement calculator

If you need help with this task, find a financial planner who’s trained in calculating retirement needs and has your best interests at heart.

The next step: Be prepared to work into your late 60s or early 70s, if possible, and take steps to increase the odds that you’ll be able to keep working. Working longer reduces the strain on your financial resources and gives your savings a chance to grow before you have to tap them in retirement.

The third step: Develop a thoughtful strategy for making your retirement savings last for a long time. Don’t “wing it” by withdrawing from your savings the amounts you need to meet current living expenses -- that’s a good way to outlive your savings. Key action items in this step include delaying Social Security as long as possible to maximize your lifetime payout and deploying your retirement savings to develop a diversified portfolio of retirement income.

Social Security being reduced or eliminated

Unfortunately, chances are very good that Social Security benefits will be cut in the near future to help the system remain viable for decades to come. The key question is whether funding deficits will be reduced by benefit reductions, tax increases or a reasonable combination of both. 

Social Security reform is sure to be hotly debated in the near future as lawmakers try to find a way to keep it viable. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised not to touch Social Security benefits if elected. But the GOP recently proposed changes that would eliminate the system’s funding deficit entirely by cutting benefits. Other options were suggested earlier in the year when the Bipartisan Policy Center proposed a package that combined benefit reductions and tax increases.

Unfortunately, the action steps you can take here are limited and wouldn’t be a magic bullet. As a voter, you’ll want to closely follow the debate and let your Congressional representatives know how you feel. And be prepared to adjust your retirement plans in case your Social Security benefits are reduced, such as saving more, working longer or reducing your living expenses in retirement.

Declining health that requires long-term care

Many older workers have experienced the expense and disruption that occurs when their parents become frail and need help with daily living activities, and they’ve vowed to do what they can to reduce the odds of becoming a burden on their own children. Unfortunately, Medicare and most health insurance policies don’t pay for long-term care expenses.

This is indeed a serious challenge that deserves a careful strategy that would help reduce the odds of needing long-term care and also mitigate the consequences if this need does arise in your later years. 

First, you’ll want to be serious about taking basic steps to improve your health: Obtain proper nutrition, exercise sufficiently, keep your weight at a healthy level, get enough sleep, don’t smoke, don’t abuse alcohol or drugs, and remain socially engaged.

The reality is that you can take all of these action steps and still wind up needing long-term care, so you’ll want to develop a strategy to pay for these services in case you need them. This can include buying long-term care insurance, keeping your home equity in reserve if you need to pay for long-term care, buying a qualified longevity annuity contract or setting aside funds you won’t touch until you need long-term care.

Nobody said it would be easy to live a long time. But if you put plans in place now to address your fears, you can go enjoy your life knowing you’ve done the best you can to prepare, come what may.

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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.