Are you confident in your own retirement planning? Probably not, according to new data.
Just 18% of Americans — less than one in five — say they are "very confident" in their ability to finance a comfortable retirement. Another 49% report that they are "somewhat confident."
Financial distress signals
What makes the difference between being very confident and just somewhat confident? Plainly put, money. But retirement is more than that.
Every amateur accountant knows the ledger has two columns, income and expenses. The whole trick to being confident about retirement is matching up those numbers.
If you have tons of money squirreled away in your 401(k), it's easy to skip the accounting task. Why bother if you know you'll have more than enough to live on?
I suspect that's where we get the big gap between being very confident and only somewhat confident. If you take the time to truly understand your finances — including facing the good, the bad the ugly of it — your confidence is likely to grow.
I go through this all the time talking to clients. It's astounding how little people understand about their own spending.
We also tend to focus far too much on the short-term behavior of the stock market, while forgetting that the long-term purpose of prudently invested cash is to not only grow, but to double and double again — compounding growth.
Here are the five things I recommend people do to boost their own confidence in retirement:
1. Make a budget, finally
Too many people go by the old "run out of month before you run out of money" way of managing expenses. The problem is unexpected spending, such as hospital bills, car repairs or insurance deductibles.
You need a real monthly budget, on paper or on your computer, and you need an emergency fund equal to between three and six months of that monthly target. If you can do this, you will know what retirement will actually cost you.
2. Figure out your true income
It's amazing how many people would rather just keep working rather than figure out a way to stop on their own terms. Eventually, age or the economy catches up and working is no longer an option.
Sit down with your spouse and figure out all of your potential sources of retirement income. That might include working part time, which is fine. Be sure also to take into account Social Security income, pensions, workplace retirement savings, potential home equity, and real assets you might sell, such as a second home.
3. Eliminate debt on time
Do not carry credit card debt for one minute longer than necessary, especially once you are within the five- to 10- year window before retirement. Pay it down, and do the same for all home equity lines.
You need to be cash-positive once those work checks stop coming. Rather than an emergency fund, try to create a solid spending cushion to cover your true costs of living month to month. Nobody should be liquidating investments just to keep the lights on.
4. Save more now
You can't get from here to there without saving. If you have an automated 401(k) at work, join it or increase your current contribution. Set it and forget it.
If you don't have a 401(k), bite the bullet and put aside $100 a week, then try to scale it up from there. Yes, saving is hard. No, there's no alternative.
5. Invest appropriately
This is huge. The two big mistakes retirement investors make, in my experience, are that they invest too conservatively for their age, and they spend far too much in fees on actively managed investment funds.
You could live longer than you think, perhaps decades longer. You will need investments that grow to cover your future cost of living. Meanwhile, paying high fees for what often turns out to be underperformance is a real issue. It's why so many 401(k) investors fall short and only feel "somewhat" confident.
The path to retirement confidence is uphill. I understand why people don't want to think about it.
But all worthwhile journeys start with a single step. Once you get going, your confidence should rise along with each stride forward.