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Downturn dims hopes for golden years

The Baltimore Sun

Richard Lunsford feels as if he's watching the economy fall apart, and along with it, his plans for retirement.

The stock market is volatile. Inflation is rising. Health care is expensive. And housing sales are weak - a pointedly painful fact for Lunsford, 55, who runs a construction business from his Pasadena home.

"Right now, there's hardly any work at all. No one's buying houses, no one's repairing houses, no one's building," he said. "I probably won't get to retire. I'm living on my savings right now."

Though the downturn in the country's economy is hitting many hard, through higher prices and lesser portfolios, it's taking a particular toll on those who have retired - or soon hope to. They don't have years of work ahead to help wait out the market.

"It doesn't matter what investment they're in; they're bound to be nervous," said Peg Downey, a certified financial planner, who works in Silver Spring.

Those who planned to make money trading in their big homes for smaller ones can no longer count on quick sales or top dollar pricing. People with most of their money in stocks have to contend with financial markets more likely to swoon than swell - major indexes declined for the fifth straight day yesterday, and foreign exchanges were rattled this week as well.

And even those who want to invest conservatively by relying on interest income are watching their returns diminish, as the Federal Reserve continues to cut interest rates. The Fed cut its benchmark rate yesterday by three-quarters of a percentage point to 3.5 percent.

Keep working

"It's not a time when people really want to give up their jobs," said Downey, who recently has been fielding calls from anxious retirees-to-be. Many people are worried that the economic outlook means they will have to work longer than expected.

Two weeks ago, Wendy Sigler rearranged her 401k to help mitigate potential losses, spurred by the increasingly frequent use of the "recession word" by economists. In her early 50s now, she had hoped to retire from her job as a sales manager at an advertising company within a decade, but she's no longer sure that will be possible.

The equity that she and her husband have in their Ellicott City home has steadily declined, while expenses have risen - energy bills in particular. With the increased costs of electricity, heating oil and gas for driving, Sigler's monthly payout has gone up by $600.

"The tentative [retirement] plans that I had put in place change with the fluidity of the market on a month-to-month basis," she said. "A lot is going to depend on what happens over the next few years in the economy. I have to have enough money before I can even think about retiring."

Economists are pleased that people such as Sigler are taking action for their financial futures. Too many are not, said Joseph DeMattos Jr., the Maryland AARP director.

In contrast with a generation ago, when most American workers had traditional pension plans, few employees have them today - just one in five. That means the responsibility for retirement planning has shifted to the individual, a job many appear to have abdicated.

Half of working families do not put anything away for retirement, and those who do have average savings of just $35,000.

"We have a lifelong financial savings plan crisis in this country today," said DeMattos, adding that there needs to be some sort of bipartisan political intervention to stimulate a savings spree.

Seek advice

But until that happens, he suggests that retirees use their concerns as an opportunity to reflect on their financial futures and seek professional advice. Above all, he said, stay calm.

"That's incredibly, incredibly important at times such as these," DeMattos said.

Clayton Railey doesn't need the reminder. Twenty years into his retirement from IBM, he has seen the market go up, down and all around. And Railey says he doesn't really think times are as bad as some say.

"It's as though we're about ready to fall off the economic cliff, and I don't believe that," said Railey, who is 76 and lives in Easton.

The nation's unemployment rate rose to 5 percent last month from 4.7 percent in November, but it's still low in Railey's opinion, as is inflation, which rose 4.1 percent in 2007 - the largest increase since 1990.

"This is kind of a rehash of the 2000 [dot.com] cycle, it's just a different cause this time," Railey said. "Instead of high tech, it's housing. ... Even with the housing problem, I don't get the feeling that we're in bad shape."

Pessimistic public

Kevin McIntyre, an associate professor of economics at McDaniel College in Westminster, agrees.

"Things appear worse than they are right now," McIntyre said. "There's a very good chance, probably a better than average chance, that the economy will experience a slowdown in growth, and that'll be it. ... The general public is more pessimistic than perhaps is warranted."

It's a hard proposition for someone such as Lunsford to accept. His retirement fund consists of whatever he has in the bank - and the interest it earns - along with Social Security.

He needs the housing market to rebound before he can even think about retiring, and he has all but given up on doing it early.

"My father is in the same business, and he's having the same problems," Lunsford said.


Sun reporter Jamie Smith Hopkins contributed to this article.

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