4 levers for retirement pay

The Baltimore Sun

From 50,000 feet, your retirement doesn't look so good. Bearish financial markets, gloomy long-term projections for stocks, a sputtering economy - and that's just the big picture.

Down at eye level - where you actually have some control over your finances - things aren't much better with milk and gasoline at $4 a gallon.

But making the most of what you can control about your retirement finances can make a substantial impact, experts say.

"Investors have at least four levers: how much they withdraw, how they allocate their portfolio, when they actually begin retirement and when they start taking Social Security," said Christine Fahlund, senior financial planner for T. Rowe Price Group. "The combination of those and understanding how to use those dials makes a tremendous difference in what type of retirement lifestyle they can enjoy."

Fahlund has begun to quantify the impact those strategies can have.

If a 62-year-old waited three more years to retire, for example, socking away 25 percent of salary in those years, she could boost retirement income by 28 percent, the T. Rowe Price research found.

But even saving nothing in those last few years would boost annual retirement income by 12 percent, simply due to delaying withdrawals by working longer.

Working longer and delaying Social Security had the most significant impact on retiree income, followed by limiting withdrawals. Asset allocation - the process of balancing a portfolio with a mix of stocks, bonds and other investments - was a distant fourth.

Price is working on a free Internet tool (to be available later this summer) that will let retirement savers model combinations of these strategies.

Out in the real world, meanwhile, retirees are already experimenting with the strategies.

When Diana and Richard Emerson retired three years ago they left with an enviable package: Traditional pensions, other savings and retiree health coverage through former employer Principal Financial Group.

The Des Moines, Iowa, residents still have a comfortable lifestyle, but rising prices on everyday items have meant some spending changes. They are consolidating errands to cut gasoline costs and eating more leftovers.

Diana Emerson, 62, started back to work on a project through Principal's "Happy Returns" program that matches retirees with temporary assignments. The program is administered by Manpower Inc., allowing retirees to work without jeopardizing pension benefits.

Getting back to the grindstone was more about staying active than raising cash, she said, but the added income is allowing a few extras and keeping some of their big travel dreams alive.

"It's a wonderful feeling to be back," she said. "The extra income isn't going to make us rich, but it is a buffer" from inflation.

And it isn't just retirees who are planning to work longer.

A survey from MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures indicates that between 5.3 million and 8.4 million Americans are engaged in so-called "encore" careers, combining necessary income with social passions.

Surveying 3,500 people ages 44 to 70 (encompassing the baby boom generation), the organizations found that millions of people want to stay engaged in the work force out of a sense of doing good for society, as well as collecting a paycheck.

Count Michael Watson, 48, among them.

By the time Watson, a human resources executive, had reached age 40, he had worked for International Business Machines, General Electric and Time Warner, among others.

But when a recruiter called about a position as the top human resources professional for the Girl Scouts of the USA in New York, Watson jumped at the chance to blend his expertise with a good cause, he said.

"I loved IBM," said Watson, who was working there when the recruiter called. "But what I saw in the Girl Scouts was an organization with the sole purpose of building girls who will make the world a better place."

Taking the Girl Scout job will mean delaying Watson's one-time goal of retiring young. His salary is comparable to what he earned at IBM, but gone are the corporate stock options and other perks that the nonprofit world can't match.

"I'll work as long as I find it interesting," said Watson, echoing the themes that the survey designers said were common among baby boomers.


Janet Kidd Stewart writes for Tribune Media Services.

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