Planning for retirement can be daunting. After all, there are myriad variables to consider – the kind of post-work lifestyle you would like to maintain, the cost of living where you retire to, ongoing inflation, whether you will be collecting Social Security (and, if so, how much), among others – that are not only difficult to calculate, but difficult to even estimate accurately.
In a Wall Street Journal report, two Duke University professors – of behavioral economics and behavioral science – organized a study where they invited “hundreds of people – of different age groups, income levels, and professions – to [their] research lab and asked them how much of their salary they thought they would need in retirement.” Most participants pegged the amount at 70%, but not because they sat down to parse the numbers, but “because they recalled hearing it at some point...and they simply regurgitated it on demand.”
To calculate an actual (not perceived) figure, the professors, Dan Ariely and Aline Holzwarth, “took another group of participants, and asked them specific questions about how they wanted to spend their time in retirement,” then used the data to “[attach] 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 actual percentage – 130% – almost doubled the conventional wisdom. While initially surprising, the figure makes sense: besides generating income, work is “a very cheap activity” by virtue of employer-covered expenses, like food and drink. Retirement, however, is perpetual free time – and countless opportunities to spend money that would not have been spent while in the workforce.
Ariely and Holzwarth then partnered with fintech company MoneyComb to devise a better way to determine retirement spending. They came up with “seven spending categories: eating out, digital services, recharge, travel, entertainment and shopping, and basic needs” to guide the process, then recommended “[imagining] that every day was the weekend” when estimating spending in each. As a baseline, they suggest visualizing a year in retirement spent “[living]…in the best way you can imagine” – making sure to clarify this “doesn’t necessarily mean ‘more expensive.’” Once each category is calculated and totaled, the number can be multiplied by years of expected retirement – usually around 20 – to determine a savings goal.
By examining each category realistically, future retirees can develop a true picture of their ideal post-retirement life, then develop a roadmap to make it happen. Whether this necessitates lifestyle adjustments in the present, a recalibration of idealized expectations, or a rejiggering of an investment portfolio, thinking about retirement in this way can make that retirement goal obtainable rather than a future casualty of poor planning.
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