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Retirement advice for unprepared baby boomers

January 19, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Since January 1, more than 10,000 baby boomers a day are turning 65 and that will continue for the next 19 years. Unfortunately, many of those boomers are not prepared for retirement. But it's not too late to avoid personal financial disaster.Unlike a lot of baby boomers, Lena French didn't completely put off retirement planning, but then this Pasadena woman and her husband didn't start right away.

"We had two mortgages at the time, two car loans, two of every loan you can think of. We had credit cards, every one you can think of, maxed out. And we had no savings," said Lena.

Even so, today, as chief financial officer for the non-profit Blind Childrens Center in Los Angeles, Lena can retire along with her husband without worry, a rarity among boomers.

Most baby boomers believe they are a special generation, having lived during intense social change that was also one of the most affluent and healthiest of times.

Unfortunately they also enjoyed their free-spirited life too much without saving for the future.

They have relied on their homes to be their retirement fund, but that bubble burst and now many homeowners owe more than their property is worth.

And even if boomers have a 401(k) plan their average balance is only $150,000. That's not enough to cover future medical costs.

In fact, men will need about $187,000 just to cover those costs while women, who live longer, need $213,000.

"It's almost like you're speaking a foreign language," said Tetsu Tanimoto, Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. "They don't want to hear 'Pay off your debt.' And even mortgages: I say, don't have mortgages. They're saying it's a good tax break and all that. I say I know that, but you still owe somebody."

Tetsu is Lena's financial advisor. He told her and her husband not only to dump the debt, but also: "I just told them that they're spending too much, they're giving too much to their kids. If they want to put a roof on their house, or buy a brand new car, tell them your adviser says you can't afford to do that."

Tetsu's advice is not easy at first. In fact, Lena's first response was: "We're thinking, 'Is he crazy?' We're trying to make our bills. We have no extra money to be able to save. But he showed us how we can re-organize our debt."

But Tetsu fired back with: "Don't do what the average person does. Do the opposite the average person does. You do what the average person does, you're in trouble financially."

One way to do the opposite is to stop thinking it's too late to start saving and to make a financial plan, no matter your age.

Such as:

  • If you have adult children still living at home, ask them to pay rent, at least to cover expenses.
  • Like to travel? Take shorter trips, closer to home.
  • Delay retirement. That way you can give what savings you have now more time to grow before tapping into it.
  • Lena could retire now but she says she's going to continue to work, not because she has to, but because she wants to.

    "I'm not ready. I love my job," said Lena.