Long Retirement, Meet Price Tag

Ryan Jantzen, a financial adviser in northern California, has a 12-year-old client with $4,000 invested in an IRA. That's right -- an Individual Retirement Account.

Pre-teen investors are rare birds even for experienced retirement planners like Jantzen, but they represent a logical extension of the savings advice he and others can't stress enough: start early, start now, start yesterday.

"What people need to do is assess where they are and what they want in retirement, and discuss it with their spouse, because they're not always the same," Jantzen said.

Americans' lengthening life expectancy, coupled with a wider desire to retire well before the traditional early- to mid-60s target, means that retirement is more often a span of several decades rather than several years.

Planning for the Long Haul

Those trends combine with other facts of modern life to make saving for retirement a daunting proposition, however. Results of an annual Retirement Reality Check survey released this month by Allstate Insurance show that financing retirement tied with terrorism as the issue people are most worried about -- well above worries about health, family, career and current finances.

"It's becoming more difficult for people to save at the same time that more of the burden's been shifting to them," says Bob Carlson, author of the book "The New Rules of Retirement," and editor of a national newsletter, Retirement Watch.

It's more difficult to save, Carlson said, because health care and housing costs have risen and the 1990s bull market for stock growth is over. And the burden for saving has shifted because traditional pensions are drying up, and Social Security covers less of your pre-retirement income the more money you make.

But retirement specialists like Jantzen and Carlson insist it is possible to build toward a comfortable post-work future.

Here are some of the things they recommend taking into consideration as you develop your savings strategy:

  Make sure you are taking advantage of all savings options your present employer offers -- and that you're participating to the fullest extent if there's a financial match for your contribution. There may be even more options beyond the 401(k). "I find a lot of people ... are leaving money on the table their employer is offering to give them," said Jantzen.

   Estimate your living costs in retirement and be realistic. Although the old rule of thumb called for spending 65 percent of what you did while working, some people actually spend more -- whether for pastimes or for health care. Formulating this number includes estimating your lifespan, too.

   Remember that your later years may have different phases. Carlson describes three: the early, middle and late years, each with its own focus and costs.

  Don't rule out working altogether. Many people find themselves back in the workplace, at least part time, to maintain social networks and stay mentally sharp.

   Research housing options before relying on tapping the equity in your home. Housing is so expensive nowadays, there may not be another appealing "downsizing" option.

  Take into account both the tax credits you'll earn for retirement saving, and how inflation will affect the real worth of your savings.

  Make sure your legal beneficiaries are who you want them to be. Especially in this era of multiple marriages and blended families, this is an important step.

Entering a New Phase

Roger Goodyear is something of a "professional retired person," as the president of the Retired Peace Officers of California. A police officer in Detroit and then Palo Alto, Goodyear was forced by the physical toll of police work to leave his job on an industrial disability award earlier than he intended, which reduced his pension.

That was 26 years ago. Today Goodyear, 72, also earns income through his private investigation firm, Axiom and Associates. His wife, 48, also works, and the couple owns stock. Though he wouldn't have minded retiring, he's glad to be active: "If they sit down on a rocking chair they've got about five years left. I watched both my grandfathers do that" when they retired from Ford and General Motors, he said.

"I'm comfortable, not wealthy," he said. Not a bad thing to aspire to.