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Retirement plans iffy for millions

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.

 • 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 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. By far the greatest shortcoming has been a failure to save. The personal savings rate averaged close to 10 percent in the 1970s and ‘80s. By late 2007, the rate had sunk to negative 1 percent.

The recession has helped improve the savings rate – it’s now back above 5 percent. Yet typical boomers are still woefully short on retirement savings. Even those in their 50s and 60s with a 401(k) for at least six years had an average balance of less than $150,000 at the end of 2009, according to EBRI.

An AARP survey last month of boomers turning 65 next year found that they worry no more about money than they did at age 60 – before the recession or the collapse of home prices. But in an acknowledgement of reality, 40 percent said they plan to work “until I drop.”

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