Another Pension Bites the Dust: A Lesson from Hostess' Bankruptcy

Hostess Pensions
Hostess Pensions

If you're one of the few remaining Americans with a pension, we've got some good news and some bad news for you.

The good news is that if your pension fails, there's a backstop provided by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. That U.S. government agency will cover your payments up to a maximum level that's based on your age and accrued benefits when the pension failed. For a 65 year old, that maximum is currently $55,840.92.

The bad news -- pensions are a dying breed. For instance, when Hostess Brands entered bankruptcy liquidation, it became the latest in a long list of companies to terminate its plan. To top it off, while the existing retirees may still be protected by the government backstop, younger Hostess employees aren't so lucky. A 45-year-old, for instance, will be able to get no more than $13,960.20 a year from the guarantee.

The Bigger Pension Picture

Unfortunately, Hostess and its employees are not alone.

There was a time when the concept of a career meant working for a single employer from graduation through retirement, with a lifetime pension and a gold watch awaiting you when you were through. These days, a mere 11 of the Fortune 100 companies offer pensions to new hires, down from 90 as recently as 1998.

In recent years, airlines like Delta (DAL), United (UAL), and US Airways (LCC) have turned pensions over to the PBGC as part of their bankruptcy proceedings. All told, the PBGC manages payments for around 4,500 plans in total. During its Fiscal Year 2012 alone, the agency took over for more than 150 pension plans

With the hopes of a pension dwindling, that leaves you with two tools for your retirement planning: Social Security and your own savings.

Make That One-and-a-Half Tools

On average, Social Security covers around 40 percent of a person's pre-retirement income. That's a government-guaranteed payment, at least until the money in the Trust Fund runs out.

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The Trust Fund is currently expected to be empty in 2033, but thanks to today's remarkably low interest rates, that projection may soon be revised to an even earlier date.

Even when the Trust Fund runs out of cash, Social Security will still be taking in funds and sending out payments -- but at around 75 percent of its promised benefit levels. So in about 20 years, you can expect your Social Security check to be about 30 percent of your pre-retirement income.

If you can live on a third of your salary, or if you're one of the few still covered by a decent pension that will still be around to pick up the slack, then your retirement planning is done. If not, you've got some investing to do.

How Much Do You Need?

With the typical household income around $50,000, a Social Security check covering 30 percent of that level would bring in $15,000 a year. Even if you do have a pension, if it gets frozen -- like American Airlines' (AAMRQ) is -- your benefits will stop increasing.

Say you anticipate getting $15,000 from Social Security and another $15,000 from your frozen pension. If you'd like to maintain your current lifestyle, you'd need to generate $20,000 a year from your investments.

Using the 4 percent rule for retirement withdrawals, you'd need $500,000 saved at retirement to cover that $20,000 annual income gap. That's an achievable amount within a working lifetime, but the longer you wait to get started, the tougher it is to reach.

The table below shows how much you need to sock away each month to reach that goal, based on the annual return rate you earn:

Years to Go

10% Annual Returns

8% Annual Returns

6% Annual Returns

4% Annual Returns































Source: Author's calculations.

Of course, there are no guarantees in investing, but one thing is certain: The longer you wait, the tougher it gets to reach your target. And if you do start now and things work out better than you expect, consider that a bonus to help your golden years be truly golden.

Making the right financial decisions today makes a world of difference in your golden years, but with most people chronically under-saving for retirement, it's clear not enough is being done. Don't make the same mistakes as the masses. Click here to learn about The Shocking Can't-Miss Truth about Your Retirement. It won't cost you a thing, but don't wait, because your free report won't be available forever.

At the time of publication, Motley Fool contributor Chuck Saletta did not own shares of any company mentioned in this article

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