To Succeed in Retirement, Start Living Like a Retiree Now

Smiling man sitting on the couch and browsing the internet

By Joanne Cleaver

The problem with delayed gratification is that it doesn't translate to any fun today.

"It's like living on the layaway plan," Deborah Price, founder of The Money Coaching Institute, says of endless retirement saving.

The "eat your spinach" tone that permeates most financial advice about saving for retirement explains why so many Americans don't do what they know is good for them, Price and other financial advisers say. They know they should save 10 percent to 15 percent of their annual income for retirement, but many don't. They know they shouldn't touch those savings for emergencies, but many do.

We want to have our cake the day we retire and every day before that as well.

Actually, that is possible if you redefine "cake." The trick is to replace the stereotypical before-and-after scenario of work-life deprivation rewarded by endless (if sedate) retirement partying with a lifestyle that scales today's habits to transition seamlessly into retirement.

Depressing, Misunderstood Numbers

A PNC Bank (PNC) survey this spring, which included more than 1,200 adults from 25 to 75 years of age, found that just over half of retirees withdraw savings without a plan and are worried about running out of money. In fact, 63 percent of retirees are worried that they don't have enough in guaranteed income to stay solvent while retired. Yet 40 percent of early retirees (age 64 and younger) are hitting up savings for routine living expenses, which increases the chance that they will outlive their money.

Joseph Jennings, senior vice president of wealth management with PNC, detects in those actions a lifelong misunderstanding about how to scale daily life with actual financial resources.

Millennials and Gen Xers still have time to adjust today's lifestyle to pay it forward to their future retired selves. If they save as much as possible (ideally, 15 percent) through workplace savings plans and live within the remaining means, they will both put aside meaningful retirement savings and develop the habit of not touching savings.

"That forced savings habit early on pays off. As it becomes a habit and as you see it build, it starts to become its own reward," Jennings says.

Replicating Your Own Pension

Angie Grainger, an accountant, certified financial planner and money coach, says that she has seen a spate of new clients determined to structure a guaranteed retirement income stream that replicates a pension.

That strategy can work, using annuities and specialty life insurance products, if the lifestyle people hope to continue is already scaled for their post-retirement income. In other words, she counsels clients to start living on the budget they believe they will have in retirement, and save the difference to fund that income stream.

A smart way to get into the "live like a retiree" mindset is to break down savings goals and income expectations into a monthly plan. That demolishes the "impossible dream" reaction to goals of saving millions of dollars.

"You don't think, 'I have to save $50,000 to buy a car.' You think, 'I need $300 a month to buy a car,'" Grainger says. Apply the same approach to what you can save and spend each month now and each month in retirement, and the gap between what you need each month and what you have to save each month becomes manageable.

Once you've digested that, prioritize lifestyle wants and needs accordingly so you can sustain your lifestyle into retirement. For example, instead of indulging in a quarterly spa weekend to recover from working hard, indulge annually with the expectation that you will be able to continue that luxury after you retire.

Sustainable Lifestyle

Realign your lifestyle now to support sustained saving. A sustainable lifestyle will also help you avoid the "school's out" overreaction that Price often sees with clients who have pinned all of their dreams on the moment they wake up retired. "They're like adolescents who want to live it up. But if you don't pace yourself, you'll have to go back to that awful job," Price says.

But who doesn't want to celebrate that first year of freedom? If travel, home renovations or plunging into a new career is No. 1 your bucket list, create a bucket of money for that pursuit, Price advises. "Get it out of your system. And expect that once you've run through that mad money, you'll go back to a more reasonable lifestyle," she says.

Another way to have your cake and your party too is to invest some time and money on that pursuit before you retire so you truly know what you are getting into. Experiment for a week as a business owner before pouring all of your resources into a new venture. Take a one-week cruise before committing to an around-the-world cruise. Get some quotes for remodeling the house before taking out those grimy kitchen cabinets.

And, adds Price, think about the underlying outcome of the items on your bucket list. You might be able to find less-expensive alternatives that accomplish the same goals. After all, when you are working, time is money. When you are retired, your time is a less valuable commodity. Try out several routes to the same destinations. If you start before you retire, your journey will be as much fun as the arrival.

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