Money & Policy

The No. 1 Question Americans Ask About Retirement

Here are the best, and sometimes controversial, answers to it

(This article previously appeared on MarketWatch.com.)

Google recently unveiled the 10 questions Americans ask most about retirement. The question Americans ask the search engine most: “How much do I need to retire?”

Here’s the full list:

10 most-asked retirement questions, past year U.S.
1. How much do I need to retire?
2. How to retire early
3. When can I retire?
4. What is the retirement age?
5. How much to save for retirement?
6. How to save for retirement
7. How to retire at 50
8. How to retire
9. What is full retirement age for Social Security?
10. Where to retire

How Much Money for Retirement?: It’s Complicated

Answering the question of how much you need to retire is complicated.

For years, many experts threw out $1 million as a figure we should all aim for. And according to a survey by personal finance site Nerdwallet, half of Americans think that $1 million will be enough to live on in retirement.

But as I recently reported for MarketWatch, most people won’t be able to retire the way they want with just $1 million: “With people living longer with the advances of medical care and the higher costs of living, a million dollars just doesn’t go as far as it used to,” Mitchell C. Hockenbury, a certified financial planner at 1440 Financial Partners, told MarketWatch.

For her part, finance guru Suze Orman says the magic number is $5 million or more — and MarketWatch reported that some people agree with that number, while others think that figure is far too high.

Another oft-cited formula for how much to save is Fidelity’s, which notes that by age 50 you should have six times your starting salary saved and by 67 10 times. Financial author and planner David Bach says this philosophy is a good starting point, but adds that “you might need to be saving more than that” and “you definitely don’t need to be saving less.”

Your Mileage May Vary

Of course, how much you will need to retire depends on a number of things — some of which you can control and some of which you can’t. These include asset allocation and location, saving and spending, market returns, longevity and more — all of which this chart from J.P. Morgan very clearly lays out.

And while much of the advice on how much to save for retirement is debatable, there are a few rules that nearly everyone agrees on: start early and make regular contributions, set up automatic enrollment and auto-escalation of your retirement plan, cut expenses and bump up your contributions when you get a raise.

If you want to retire early — which was the second-most-asked retirement question — you’ll likely need to turbo-charge some of those retirement to-dos, like dramatically cutting spending and upping your savings rate.

The FIRE movement (financial independence, retire early) movement, in which people reach financial independence and leave the workforce much earlier than traditional retirement age, has gained traction in the past few years.

One couple that’s on track to retire early told Marketwatch that they do it by saving 70% of their income and slashing their spending from $110,000 a year to $44,000 a year.

Retirement Hopes vs. Reality

All of this interest in retiring — and how to pay for it — comes as a staggering number of Americans are financially unprepared for retirement.

Almost 60% of working age people don’t have any retirement assets from an employer-sponsored 401(k) or similar plan, an IRA, or defined-benefit plan, according to the National Institute on Retirement Security.

By Catey Hill
Catey Hill is MarketWatch's senior content strategist. She writes about how to upgrade your life, and helps readers find great deals on products and services. Follow her on Twitter @CateyHill

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