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Boomers busting retirement dreams

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    "If I'd been smarter and planned and had the bucks, I'd wait until 70. It's my fault. For years I was making plenty of money and spending plenty of money," said Michael Vanatta, a baby boomer who was laid off last January from his $100,000-a-year job as a sales executive for a turf company.
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CHICAGO » Through a combination of procrastination and bad timing, many baby boomers are facing a personal finance disaster just as they’re hoping to retire.

Starting in January, more than 10,000 baby boomers a day will turn 65, a pattern that will continue for the next 19 years.

The boomers, who in their youth revolutionized everything from music to race relations, are set to redefine retirement. But a generation that made its mark in the tumultuous 1960s now faces a crisis as it hits its own mid-60s.

"The situation is extremely serious because baby boomers have not saved very effectively for retirement and are still retiring too early," says Olivia Mitchell, director of the Boettner Center for Pensions and Retirement Research at the University of Pennsylvania.

There are several reasons to be concerned:

» The traditional pension plan is disappearing. In 1980 some 39 percent of private-sector workers had a pension that guaranteed a steady payout during retirement. Today that number stands closer to 15 percent, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington, D.C.

» Reliance on stocks in retirement plans is greater than ever; 42 percent of those workers now have 401(k)s. But the past decade has been a lost one for stocks, with the Standard & Poor’s 500 index posting total returns of just 4 percent since the beginning of 2000.

» Many retirees banked on their homes as their retirement fund. But the crash in housing prices has slashed almost a third of a typical home’s value. Now 22 percent of homeowners, or nearly 11 million people, owe more on their mortgage than their home is worth. Many are boomers.

Michael Vanatta, 61, of Vero Beach, Fla., is paying the price for being a boomer who enjoyed life without saving for the future. He put a daughter through college, but he also spent plenty of money on indulgences like dining out and the latest electronic gadgets.

Vanatta was laid off last January from his $100,000-a-year job as a sales executive for a turf company. And with savings of just $5,000, he’s on a budget for the first time. In April he will start taking Social Security at age 62.

"If I’d been smarter and planned and had the bucks, I’d wait until 70," says Vanatta, who is divorced and rents an apartment.

"It’s my fault. For years I was making plenty of money and spending plenty of money."

Vanatta is in the majority. Some 51 percent of early boomer households, headed by those ages 55 to 64, face a retirement with lower living standards, according to a 2009 study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

Too many boomers have ignored or underestimated the worsening outlook for their finances, says Jean Setzfand, director of financial security for AARP, the group that represents Americans over age 50. By far the greatest shortcoming has been a failure to save. The personal savings rate—the amount of disposable income unspent—averaged close to 10 percent in the 1970s and ’80s. By late 2007 the rate had sunk to negative 1 percent.

Signs of coming trouble are visible on several other fronts, too:

» Mortgage debt. Nearly 2 in 3 people age 55 to 64 had a mortgage in 2007, with a median debt of $85,000.

» Social Security. Nearly 3 out of 4 people file to claim Social Security benefits as soon as they’re eligible at age 62. That locks them in at a much lower amount than they would get if they waited.

» Medical costs. Health care expenses are soaring, and the availability of retiree benefits is declining.

» Employment. Boomers both need and want to work longer than previous generations. But unemployment is near 10 percent, and many have lost their jobs.

 

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