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Why You'll Need Less in Retirement Than You Think

3 reasons your money will go further, though health care is a wild card

By Jonathan Clements and MarketWatch

(This article appeared previously on MarketWatch.)

Conventional wisdom says you need retirement income equal to 80 percent of your final salary. But there is a decent chance you could happily retire with far less.


Let’s start with reality: Most of us don’t have a well-honed financial plan in which we set out to amass a specific sum and quit the workforce only when we hit our target. Instead, we save what we can and then make do.


If that means retiring with less than 80 percent, I wouldn’t be overly concerned.

(MORE: Smart Investing Strategies for 2015)

Consider a 2014 survey of recent retirees by Baltimore’s T. Rowe Price Group. The 1,507 participants, who had a median net worth of $473,000, were living on an average of 66 percent of their preretirement income. Yet 57 percent said they were living as well or better than when they were working and 85 percent agreed with this statement: “I don’t need to spend as much as I did before I retired to be satisfied.”

The 80 percent replacement ratio assumes you can get by on less than your final salary because you no longer are saving 10 percent a year or so toward retirement. You also are no longer making an employee’s 7.65 percent payroll-tax contribution to Social Security and Medicare.


In addition, your federal income-tax bill should go down. Those 65 and older can claim a higher standard deduction or, if they are itemizing, can often deduct unreimbursed medical and dental expenses in excess of 7.5 percent of income, versus 10 percent for those who are younger. On top of that, a significant portion of your income will likely come from Social Security benefits, which are partially or entirely tax-free.



All this seems reasonable as far as it goes — but I don’t believe it goes far enough. While some retirees might need 80 percent of their pre-retirement income, here are three reasons you may be comfortable with much less:


1. Your children are off the family payroll


According to the Agriculture Department, it costs $245,000 for a middle-income family to raise a child through age 17. College might add another $100,000 or $200,000, and possibly more, depending on whether your teenager goes to a state or private school. Often, the tab doesn’t end there, as parents subsidize their adult children’s initial years in the workforce.




It is a shame empty-nesters aren’t seizing the opportunity to save more. But there also is cause for optimism: If the money is getting lavished on travel and eating out, it suggests the parents have a fair amount of financial wiggle room — and they could easily cut expenses if they later find themselves without enough retirement income.


2. You were saving more than 10 percent


In 2014, Americans saved just 4.8 percent of their disposable personal income, on average, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. But while many Americans save pitifully little, I meet plenty of folks who regularly sock away 20 percent of their income, and even more once they count any matching employer contribution to their 401(k) plan.


That brings us to one of the great financial ironies: The more you save, the less you need for retirement. If you sock away just 10 percent of your income, you might indeed require 80 percent of your final salary to retire in comfort. But if you save 25 percent, you could sustain your current lifestyle with perhaps 65 percent.


3. Your mortgage is paid off


More people are carrying mortgage debt into retirement; the Federal Reserve’s 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances found that 42 percent of households headed by someone age 65 to 74 have debt that is secured by their home, up from 32 percent in 2004. Many seniors, however, seem to get this debt paid off in their initial retirement years. Among households headed by someone age 75 and older, less than 20 percent have loans secured by their house.


Jonathan Clements is the founder and editor of HumbleDollar. He has written eight personal finance books, including From Here to Financial Happiness (to be published in September 2018) and How to Think About Money, and contributed to five others. He sits on the advisory board and investment committee of Creative Planning, one of the country’s largest independent financial advisors. He spent almost 20 years at The Wall Street Journal, where he was the newspaper’s personal finance columnist, and then worked for six years at Citigroup, where he was director of financial education for Citi Personal Wealth Management, before returning to the Journal for an additional 15-month stint as a columnist. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @ClementsMoney Read More
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