This Is Your Last Shot at Preparing for a Comfortable Retirement

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This past Friday, the Social Security Administration released its annual Trustees' Report detailing the health of the Social Security system and its Trust Funds. And with each passing year, we inch closer to the date the Trust Funds run out of cash and benefits get slashed by about 25 percent -- and in some years, the date inches closer from the other direction as well.

But this time, for the second year in a row, the Trustees projected that the Trust Funds will empty by 2033. That's surprising, and better than what the experts had expected after the Congressional Budget Office provided its own dismal update on the Trust Funds earlier this year.

The Social Security Trustees say they've improved their projection methods, which is why the Trust Funds' "run dry" date held steady, despite the bad news from the CBO. Otherwise, the projections would have looked worse.

The Clock is Ticking

Regardless of whether you're relying on the Trustees' old calculations or their newer ones, the story doesn't really change all that much. You've got somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 years to prepare for the Trust Funds to run out of cash.

Once those funds run out, Social Security can only pay benefits based on the taxes coming in to the program. Unless SSI tax rates rise, or federal law is changed in a way that funnels other money into the program, at that point, Social Security will only be able to cover around 75 percent of its promised benefits.

Nobody really knows yet how those cuts would be spread across the population of recipients. However, if you expect to be alive in 20 years, you're better off preparing for those cuts than being caught short when they hit.

If you start investing for the Trust Funds' worst-case outcome now, you've still got a chance to get through retirement comfortably. Twenty years is a reasonable timeline for an investment plan to work. Much less than that, and it gets very expensive to fund a decent plan.

How Much Will You Need?

The average monthly benefit to a retiree currently sits at $1,266.81 and the Social Security Trustees' Report expects long-run inflation of around 2.8 percent. Projecting that inflation rate forward for 20 years, and it will take $2,200.77 a month to cover that typical retiree benefit in 2033. That works out to $26,409.24 a year in payments. Since payroll taxes will still cover around 75 percent of benefits, the gap you'll have to cover is expected to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $6,602.31 per year.

In addition to knowing how much you need to cover, the other key thing you need to know is how long you'll need to cover that gap.

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If your total life expectancy isn't much more than those 20 years, you may not need to boost your nest egg much to make up for those missing payments. If, on the other hand, you expect to still have plenty of life left in you in 2033, you'll need that extra money to last a good long time.

One of the most popular estimates for figuring out how much money you can take out of your nest egg, adjust it for inflation, and still have enough money to last for decades is known as the 4 Percent Rule. While that rule may not guarantee success, it's still a good starting point to work from.

In essence, if you're following the 4 Percent Rule, you can take 4 percent of the value of your portfolio out your first year. Each year, you adjust that number upward for inflation, and withdraw that amount. Following that plan, you have a reasonable chance of your money lasting at least as long as you do.

With that rule in mind, you'll need around $165,000 extra socked away by 2033 -- over and above the other funds you'd planned to have for retirement -- just to cover the gap in Social Security when the Trust Funds empty.

What Will It Take to Get There?

Coming up with $165,000 in 20 years is not easy. But it's easier to get started now than to wait.

The table below shows how much you'll need to sock away each month, based on a handful of different potential return rates, to reach that target. It also shows how much tougher that hurdle gets with the continued passage of time, if you delay getting started:
No. of Years 10% Annual Return 8% Annual Return 6% Annual Return 4% Annual Return
20 $217.36 $280.22 $357.24 $450.02
18 $274.84 $343.81 $426.12 $523.01
16 $350.86 $426.28 $514.05 $615.11
14 $453.69 $535.86 $629.26 $734.53
12 $597.09 $686.29 $785.43 $894.93
10 $805.77 $902.22 $1,007.19 $1,120.94
Source: Author's calculations.

If the numbers in that top row look daunting, just look at the rows below them to see how much tougher it gets as time continues to pass. Twenty years is about the minimum amount of time that it takes for the magic of compounding to really work for you, and we've got about 20 years before the Trust Funds are expected to empty.

If you want to cover yourself for Social Security's shortfall, now really is your last decent chance to begin.

Chuck Saletta is a Motley Fool contributing writer. For more on making the right financial decisions today to make a world of difference in your golden years, learn about The Shocking Can't-Miss Truth About Your Retirement in this free report from The Motley Fool.

Best States for Retirement Aren't the Ones You Might Think
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This Is Your Last Shot at Preparing for a Comfortable Retirement
Not only does it have a Florida-like climate, but Tennessee also boasts the second lowest cost of living in the country. Combined with a low tax burden and great access to medical care, Tennessee is ideal for retirees living on fixed incomes, Kahn said. The only downside: the state has one of the country's highest crime rates.

One of the state's oldest towns, Sevierville, Tenn. (pictured above), provides close access to a national park where retirees can picnic, hike and fish, and it's an easy drive to Knoxville.
Another balmy locale, the state has an average temperature of 66.7 degrees -- behind only Hawaii and Florida for warmest average climate. Louisiana residents also enjoy low taxes, above-average access to medical care and a relatively cheap cost of living. Like Tennessee, though, it suffers from a crime rate that is among the nation's highest.

It may not be a retirement hot spot, but Bankrate says it should be. The state has the country's lowest crime rate, and an estimated state and local tax burden of just 7.6% -- lower than every state but Alaska. The downside: with an average temperature of 46 degrees over the past 30 years, it's pretty darn cold there.

For small town lovers, Aberdeen, S.D., holds a renowned film festival and has a historic downtown that plays host to farmers markets, haunted walking tours and holiday parades.

Photo: Conspiracy of Happiness,

The Bluegrass State is one of many Appalachian states to dominate Bankrate's top 10. While it may not have Florida's sunny beaches, it does boast an extremely low cost of living, warmer-than-average temperatures and a below-average crime rate.

In Louisville, retirees can stay active by walking or biking on the Louisville Loop, a pedestrian path set to eventually cover more than 100 miles. The smaller town of Danville, Ky., meanwhile, is ideal for horse lovers.

Beyond its warm weather, Mississippi also provides cheap living costs and a lower tax burden. But retirees may want to choose where they live carefully: the state has a high crime rate and subpar access to medical care. It has only 178 doctors per every 100,000 residents -- almost 100 less than the national average.

Photo: Natalie Maynor,

This coastal state came in above average for most factors that Bankrate analyzed, including climate, access to healthcare and cost of living. Its crime rate is one of the lowest in the country, with only 2,446 property and violent crimes per 100,000 people.

An affordable college town, Lynchburg, Va. offers the beauty of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, as well as historic Civil War sites.

Another Appalachian state, West Virginia is boosted onto the list by low crime, a cheaper cost of living and above-average access to medical care. Still, it has a colder climate than some of the other states.
Warm temperatures, low state and local taxes and a relatively low cost of living all pushed Alabama into the top 10. Yet it suffers from below-average access to medical care and a relatively high crime rate, with 4,026 crimes per 100,000 people -- almost double that of Virginia.

Home to a campus of the University of Alabama, Huntsville, Ala. offers botanical gardens and nature preserves and 19th century architecture. Near the Georgia border, Fort Payne, Ala. is a quintessential small town with activities that include an annual fiddling convention and a stop at the "world's largest yard sale."

Beyond its cornfields, Nebraska offers excellent access to hospital care, a below-average crime rate and living costs among the country's cheapest. But with a lower than average temperature, it's another state for retirees who don't mind the cold.
Like neighboring South Dakota, this state is not for retirees looking for warm weather. But it does have the second lowest crime rate in the nation, a mild estimated tax burden of 8.9% and 5 hospital beds available for every 1,000 residents.
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