Quick pop quiz: Is saving for retirement a want or a need?
You might rush to say it's a need, and a pressing one at that, considering the dire warnings from the investment industry about the low national savings rate.
But do you really behave that way? Would you take your favorite food off the dinner table to fatten your 401(k)?
Many people would not, so saving needs to be advertised like a luxury consumer good worth acquiring, rather than a deprivation, said Francois Gadenne, chairman of the Retirement Income Industry Association and chief executive of Retirement Engineering Inc., a Boston consulting firm.
Gadenne is passionate about getting firms to do a better job helping people build and preserve their nest eggs, and he believes that approach could help.
Retirement is a discretionary item that needs to compete with vacations and weekly restaurant meals for a share of consumers' minds, Gadenne said.
You can see some of this thinking in investment industry ads aimed at retiring baby boomers. They are portrayed as active, engaged in passions and, typically, awash in affluence. Rather than scaring people with dire predictions about costly illnesses, the message seems to be: "Old age isn't so bad anymore, and you're going to want more cash when you get here."
Will the soft sell work? Maybe for some, but Craig Copeland isn't holding out much hope.
The senior research associate for the Employee Benefit Research Institute recently published data showing participation in employer-based savings plans declined in the past couple of years despite widespread warnings about the savings rate.
Copeland attributes the drop to more employers moving to voluntary 401(k) plans from company-paid pensions and to some smaller employers dropping plans for economic reasons.
Some economists dispute that there is a retirement savings crisis, arguing that young savers will catch up over time. Copeland said that could happen, but said he also knows there are a lot of people making $50,000 and above who just aren't saving for retirement.
Gadenne thinks better marketing will help, and various industry associations regularly publicize free consumer retirement information aimed at turning the savings tide.
If you're still overwhelmed, consider a three-step approach, which strips retirement planning down to its basics:
Start at work. If you work for a company with a 401(k) or similar plan, you can save, pretax, up to $15,500 this year in the plan, plus another $5,000 if you are 50 or older.
In your 20s, aim for saving at least 10 percent of your gross salary, including employer contributions. If you wait until your 30s or even 40s, you'll have to sock away 20 percent to 30 percent, planners say.
Don't stop there. Any more earned income you can scrape together can go into an individual retirement account, though whether you qualify for a tax deduction on the contribution will depend on whether you are covered under an employer plan and how much you earn.
Remove any roadblocks. Failing to plan for a child's college costs or being hit with an unexpected emergency can derail the best-laid retirement plans.
Term life insurance and group disability insurance through employers are relatively cheap, so review the coverage.
And talk to your children early about what you will reasonably be able to contribute to college expenses. Then open a 529 college savings plan (www.savingforcollege.com) with any available money after you have made your retirement contributions.
Janet Kidd Stewart writes for Tribune Media Services.