Are you saving enough to retire? Most of us don't have a clue. You hear amazing figures, like $1 million or more, and it probably depresses you.
Fortunately, you won't need that much, unless you're feeding country-club tastes. Just ask the retirees around you. They're sitting comfortably in the middle class on savings of considerably less.
So where does that famous $1 million estimate come from? To find out, my associate, Temma Ehrenfeld, 36, put her finances on the line. She visited a random group of retirement planners, who ran her data salary, vested pension, 401(k) plan and other savings through their computer programs.
The results show an industry whose computers might as well be slot machines. She got wildly different answers, based on assumptions that weren't always relevant to her life.
She did discover why some planners say you need $1 million. They assume that you're financing your retirement solely out of personal savings, with zero payments from Social Security or employee benefits which, to me, is irresponsible.
You might want to test a retirement projection with and without future employer contributions, just in case you're fired tomorrow. But most of the "experts" Temma saw dismissed her benefits out of hand. That had the handy effect of requiring her to save extra money, which the experts would be happy to manage for her.
Here's what they had to say:
1) Hank, a financial planner, has a "fee-only" practice charging fees for his time in lieu of taking sales commissions. Temma found him by calling the International Association of Financial Planners in Atlanta, which sends out free biographical data on planners in your area. They talked for an hour and a half, at $125 an hour.
Hank concluded that Temma did indeed need the famous $1 million to retire at 65. To get it, he said she'd need to invest an additional $1,400 a year, on top of what she's saving now. But his calculation ignored her company pension, the money her employer adds to her 401(k) and her Social Security. Benefits like these are what most Americans retire on.
2) Harold, of Salomon Smith Barney, thought Temma should retire at 60 and at a higher standard of living than she has now. His projections counted Social Security, made a rough (inaccurate) entry for future 401(k) contributions and voila! produced a $1.5 million retirement "need."
Harold was hungrier than Hank. His computer told Temma that she ought to save an extra $13,000 a year in his firm's IRA, of course, not in her company 401(k).
3) John, of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, advised Temma to treat her 401(k) as "gravy" and figure her retirement without it. His computer put her savings target at $650,000, if she quit at 65 a sum attainable, he said, by investing an extra $1,300 a year. (John, by the way, was so hazy on 401(k) plans that he couldn't describe them correctly.)
4) Mike is an insurance agent for Guardian Life Insurance. Temma found him by following up on a Guardian ad for financial plans. She told Mike she didn't want insurance (she's single, with no dependents). He assured her that he also offered "traditional planning."
Why am I not surprised at what happened next? Mike "proved" that 401(k)s were a waste by greatly inflating the tax she'd owe when she took the money out. Most people, he said, should ditch these plans and put their money into yes life insurance, instead. Mike made no effort to estimate what Temma would need to retire on. He called his service "Personal Financial Engineering." I call it garbage.
5) Tom, of Merrill Lynch, ran Temma through a computerized plan costing $175. It covered all her potential future income, including employee benefits. Tom concluded that Temma is already saving enough to retire at 65.
6) Vanguard and T. Rowe Price put Temma's data through their computerized retirement planners. Their projections differed substantially, but both showed that she is saving enough.
7) The late John Allen of Arvada, Colo. whose computer I'd follow anywhere died suddenly while working with Temma, and is much mourned. He'd concluded that she's saving more than she has to, and could quit before 65.
With four projections essentially in agreement, that's probably the answer. But if Temma had stopped with Hank, Harold or the first John those whose computers are on steroids she'd have come away scared of retiring broke. Most Boomers do indeed need more savings, but that's no excuse for "experts" to fudge about how much.
Plight of whistle-blowers
What happens to whistle-blowers in this country shouldn't happen to a dog. In government, they sometimes have recourse. But private industry can crush them and won't hesitate to do so.
The whistle-blower on my mind is insurance agent Mark Colbert, 34, of Atwater, Calif., formerly employed by Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. Colbert spoke up about customers he thought were abused by insurance agents in his office. Today he's broke, separated from his wife, with his reputation trashed by MetLife and on the brink of bankruptcy.
Colbert recently lost an arbitration case against MetLife, and has been ordered to pay nearly $80,000 in fines and legal costs. MetLife also sued him in federal court, and won by default because, Colbert says, he can't pay a lawyer to defend him. MetLife has asked for an injunction to shut him up.
Colbert filed a wrongful-termination claim after MetLife fired him for "failure to follow directions" after he began sending stories about policyholders allegedly taken advantage of by MetLife to the California Insurance Department and the media. In 1995, he settled for $75,000 with MetLife denying any wrongdoing. The agreement included a gag clause to stop him from talking to MetLife clients and taking any problems public.
Colbert broke the agreement after just eight months. By following up with policyholders himself, Colbert was in breach which is why he lost in arbitration.
Can one man talking, even if he's off the wall, hurt the company that much?
"I have paid a heck of a price," Colbert says.
Syndicated columnist Jane Bryant Quinn can be reached in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200.
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