How much money will you really spend in retirement? Probably a lot more than you think

Most of us vastly underestimate the percentage of income we’ll need. Here’s how to make sure you get that number right.

  • By Dan Ariely and Aline Holzwarth,
  • The Wall Street Journal
  • Budgeting
  • Credit
  • Financial Planning
  • Saving for Retirement
  • Budgeting
  • Credit
  • Financial Planning
  • Saving for Retirement
  • Budgeting
  • Credit
  • Financial Planning
  • Saving for Retirement
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It’s the question that plagues pretty much everybody as they look ahead: How much money will I need in retirement?

Most likely, a lot more than you think.

Let us explain. The typical approach most people take is to ask what percentage of their final salary they think they will need in retirement. If you have ever visited a financial adviser, you must have been asked this sort of question. You most likely dedicated a whole minute (at most) to formulating your answer.

And no one would blame you for it. Answering a question as complex as this requires knowledge far beyond most people’s grasp — and far beyond the grasp of even many professionals.

Just imagine for a second the sorts of inputs you might use to get to the right number, such as the cost of living where you want to retire, the cost of health care (and how much of it you will utilize), the state of Social Security, the rate of inflation, the risk level of your investment portfolio, and especially how you want to spend your time in retirement. Do you want to take walks in the park or join a gym? Drink water at dinner or expensive wine? Watch TV or attend the ballet weekly? Visit family once a year or twice a year or four times a year? Do you want to eat out once or twice or five times a week? And so on.

Try it yourself. Stop for a minute and think to yourself what your percentage might be. Clearly, it’s a daunting task to transform all these hard-to-predict inputs into a single percentage.

To understand better how people grapple with this question, we invited hundreds of people — of different age groups, income levels, and professions — to our research lab and asked them how much of their salary they thought they would need in retirement.

The answer most people gave was about 70%. Did you also choose a percentage around 70%-80%? You’re not alone. In fact, we, too, thought that 70% sounded reasonable. But reasonable isn’t the same as right. So we asked the research participants how they arrived at this number. And we discovered that it wasn’t because they had truly analyzed it. It was because they recalled hearing it at some point — and they simply regurgitated it on demand.

The 70%, in other words, is the conventional wisdom. And it’s wrong.

Sticker shock

To find out what people actually will need in retirement — as opposed to what they think they will need — we took another group of participants, and asked them specific questions about how they wanted to spend their time in retirement. And then, based on this information, we attached reasonable numbers to their preferences and computed what percentage of their salary they would actually need to support the kind of lifestyle they imagined.

The results were startling: The percentage we came up with was 130% — meaning they’d have to save nearly double the amount they originally thought.

How could this be? Just think about it. Working is actually a very cheap activity. When you’re working (never mind the fact that you are actually making money), you aren’t spending much. There’s no time to spend money at work. And when we do spend money, it is often paid for by our employers. At least some companies pay for our coffee, our travel, team-building activities, happy-hour drinks and so on. It is one of the cheapest ways to spend our time.

When we retire, it is as if someone took 10 waking hours of our workday and gave us free time to do as we please. Every day becomes just like the weekend. And on the weekend, we have all kinds of time and opportunities to spend money. We shop, travel, buy tickets for events and eat out.

Sure, we may have the time in retirement to do certain things ourselves that we would pay for while working (like mow the lawn, clean the house or make our own lunch). But for the most part, it is much easier to spend money when we’re not spending most of our waking hours at work.

Are you saving enough?

This visual guide shows expert recommendations for savings goals.

Self-assessment

Now that we know how misguided the 70% figure is, here’s the hard question: How can each of us figure out more precisely the kind of life we’ll want — and what it will cost?

In a study conducted in collaboration with MoneyComb, a fintech company that participated in our Startup Lab academic incubator program at our Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University, we found out that a good way to think about spending in general is to think about the following seven spending categories: eating out, digital services, recharge, travel, entertainment and shopping, and basic needs.

To help you think about your time in retirement, imagine that every day was the weekend. How much would you like to spend in each of these categories? How often would you eat out? Which digital subscriptions would you want to have? How would you pamper yourself? How often, where and how luxuriously would you want to travel?

Clearly, those who prefer spending time at the beach and watching Netflix won’t spend nearly as much as those who prefer the opera and good wine three times a week. Those who want to spend vacations visiting family won’t spend nearly as much as those who want to take a few cruises a year. Believe it or not, what might seem like minor preferential differences like these can quickly add $20,000 a year to your spending requirements. This is precisely why it’s so important to factor in these preferences when determining how much you need for retirement.

Details, details

Failing to account for all of your expected costs in retirement, no matter how small, can be costly. Here are some specifics — many of which people often forget — to factor in when making projections.

  1. Water, gas, electricity, heating/cooling, garbage collection
  2. Rent, mortgage, insurance, maintenance
  3. Primary-care doctor, specialists, hospital bills, medications, insurance
  4. News sources, Netflix, Hulu, etc.
  5. Loan/lease, maintenance, insurance, gas, car wash, parking

Source: Dan Ariely and Aline Holzwarth

Try this exercise yourself: Close your eyes and picture a single representative year in retirement. Live it in the best way you can imagine. (And remember that “best” doesn’t necessarily mean “more expensive.”) The more expensive you imagine your future, the larger the sacrifice you will have to make today.

Now, answer each of the following questions from the list of categories.

We know that just thinking about retirement, not to mention doing the math, can be overwhelming. So pour yourself a glass of wine and make this a rewarding process for yourself. Just take note of how much you spent on the bottle for future reference.

Eating out and in: Do you like to cook, or do you prefer going out to eat? How often do you want to go out to dinner in retirement? How much do you spend on each meal, on average? How often do you see yourself splurging on dessert, or a fancy bottle of wine?

Digital services: What are the digital services you pay for now? Do you have a subscription to The Wall Street Journal? (You won’t want to give that up.) Do you have cable? How about videogames? Apps and software? Online courses? What are all the digital services you want to have in retirement, and how much do they cost? Would you like to spend more or less on digital services in retirement?

Recharge (recreational and personal services): Do you like to pamper yourself? What sort of pampering do you imagine in retirement: reading a book at the beach, treating yourself to the occasional $15 manicure, or going all in with luxurious spa treatments? How often do you want to get a massage? Are you a member of a country club, or would you like to be?

Travel: Do you like to travel? How often? How much do you spend on everyday transportation? What do you spend on flights in a year? Do you imagine traveling more or less in retirement than you do now? What sort of traveling suits you? Do you like to go on cruises? Are you the type to go on a cross-country road trip in your 60s, or would you prefer the comfort of first class on a plane? Or perhaps you want to have your own private jet that takes you to your own private island. (We can all dream.)

Entertainment: How will you spend your time in retirement? What sorts of events will you want to attend? How much do you want to spend on the opera, concerts, musicals, ballet, sports events, museums, classes and so on? Will you buy books or borrow them from the library?

Shopping: Are you a shopper? Do you like to give your friends and family gifts? What about donations to charity? How much shopping do you see yourself doing in retirement? How much do you imagine spending on clothing, electronics, home goods and other shopping?

Basic needs (utilities, housing, health care): Finally, we arrive at the least exciting but most necessary category — our essential spending. How much do you think you will spend on utilities, housing, health care and other basic needs? (This is of course a very complex number to estimate, and this is where getting input from professionals can be very useful.)

Doing the math

Now that you have a guide for determining roughly how much you’d like to spend in each category, you’re ready to add everything up. Here is an Excel spreadsheet that you can download and play with. It is prepopulated with example numbers, but you should change things around to fit your own personal preferences. To get your percentage, you’ll need to add your salary in the spreadsheet. (And if you’d like, go to our survey to let us know what percentage you got and share any feedback.)

If you want to take the next step in this process and translate your annual amount to the total amount you will need over the course of your full retirement (to know the total amount you need to accumulate from until then, for example), simply multiply the annual amount by the number of years you expect to be in retirement. For most of us, that should be about 20 years.

As we live longer, funding retirement is a moving target. And to have any hope of successfully securing our future lifestyles, we have to start early and we have to build a more detailed and accurate picture of the way we hope to live. We have to understand not just how much we will earn in our life and how far we are from retirement (in years and in dollars), but also how we want to spend our time both during our working years and after.

Once we have determined how much we truly need to save for retirement, we can then focus on how to get to this amount. We can adjust our current lifestyle accordingly, figuring out which trade-offs we are willing and unwilling to make. We should also work backward to determine how much risk we need to take in our investment portfolios in order to reach these goals. And finally, for most of us the retirement we desire may be out of reach, so we need to start being extra nice to our children.

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