Can You Afford to Retire?
photo of a hand writingphoto of a united jet

Join the Discussion: What are  your views on America's retirement system, given the vanishing lifetime pensions and  inadequate 401(k) savings?  If you're an aging baby boomer, can you afford to retire?  Share your story.

Dear FRONTLINE,

This show is what PBS should be showing once a week. And advertised as public service slots on the commercial stations. And shown in the schools as part of the curriculum. Companies are staying competitive by getting out of the pensions and putting it on the employees. Roosevelt made a social security plan in good faith which todays politicians spend on votes. If you do not do it yourself, no one will do it for you. You cannot trust business nor the government. This show tells you the facts and tells you what to do. If you don't then you are doomed to never, never, ever retire.

Stephen Whipple
Arlington, VA

Dear FRONTLINE,

I think the program should be viewed more as a cautionary tale and not a criticism of the government. My parents who emigrated from S. Korea in 1978 are also unable to retire even though my father's health is not good. I wish that I could rewind time and they could have saved more for their retirement. But I don't blame anyone (including them). They were living day-to-day and this was the end result. I vow not to make the same mistake and have educated myself about investing early. I do think there could be more outreach programs to educate people about the importance of saving for retirement, esp. in the immigrant and less wealthy populations. But my parents are the first people to tell you that there are no guarantees in life. But each generation can learn from the previous ones so that their struggles are not in vain.

Wheaton, IL

Dear FRONTLINE,

As a financial planner I am often stunned to see what people have done with their 401k programs. Transferring responsibility for retirement panning to the workers without a constant educational program is condemning many of them to invest with more risk at a time in their lives when they should be reducing risk. The need to take on risk is directly a result of mismanged investments and the lack of advice until the worker begins to approach retirment age.

My job is to help clients reach their goals, such as retirement. Unfortunately too many first come to see me after decades of missed opporunities with goals that are not realistic but might have been if they had planned and been educated.

The education has to begin in high school and has to be a constant part of their lives as they move through marriage, parenthood, etc. Employers have to recognize that a small investment in education provides their employees with more satisfaction and increases productivity.

Angel Cruz CFP�
Seattle, WA

Dear FRONTLINE,

Invest early, heavily, and most importantly diversify your investments with all the possible options available to you. We saved religiously 46% of income, maxed contributions, and invested outside of the conventional 401(k) plan. We retired at the age of 48 and 44 because our house was paid for early on and we are fine with being middle class. You can not wake up with $1,000,000 in the bank if you don't save the majority of that. In short it can be done, even though the ups and downs, you can save that million and we are proof that much more can be saved.

Whitmore Family

Los Angeles, CA

Charles Whitmore
Los Angeles, CA

Dear FRONTLINE,

I watched your program last night and was taken back at how some can fail with their retirement objectives. I recently retired at 65 with a critical mass comprising of my 401K, IRA and company defined benefit plan. I took full distribution of my company retirement plan and rolled it into an IRA. My objective was to manage my retirement funds to pace inflation as a minimum while realizing an additional capital gain as a maximum. I might add that I realized sufficient gains in my 401K and IRA's to where I could live a full life without the company defined plan. I did this as a middle class worker making less than 75k per year while investing in index funds since 1980. With my present critical mass, I can really live better than before I retired which makes me living proof that one can succeed with proper planning.I started to plan for my retirement in 1985 and was able to achieve my retirement goals. All it takes is knowledge of the government rules, fundamentals of Capitalism and plan accordingly along with desire to plan for retirement. The unfortunate thing is that the government rules can change which can disrupt ones plans- much like the sunset of current tax laws promulgated by the "tax cut" for the rich income redistribution (socialism) mentality these days. There is very little education of the public towards Capitalism and investment strategies. It is not taught in pre-college schools where it should be taught. After all, we live in a Democracy with and economic engine called Capitalism. I can visualize where the thrust of your program could cause our politicians to change the rules that could threaten those who are planning a retirement. Why don't you folks emphasize those who have done well with personal retirement planning and not simply display the failures? Capitalism is a great force to achieve freedom and would be a great topic for PBS to embrace.

Dave Ruggles
East Hampton, Connecticut

Dear FRONTLINE,

Thank you for producing an outstanding program. The pending crisis will be an overwhelming burden on our society. During your show it was noted that several employees do not participate or underfund their accounts. The younger baby boomers, gen X and the boomerang generations have a tough road ahead. The income level has decreased while the cost of living has increased forcing more of us to save less and use credit more.

One area that was not touched on was the increasing debt load to offset our income defiencies by the midstream middle class. How can one expect to increase their 401k contribution, if you can bearly buy gas to get to work?

America loves their "stuff" and I for one do not see long term reduction in instant gradification to fund retirement accounts. Our lifestyle now is full of conveniences that cost money on a monthly basis. 20 years ago we did not have the monthly internet, cable/satelite, cell phone, gym membership, HOA dues, movie rentals, college tuition, etc. to fund month after month.

On another note, our parents depended on their heritance and pensions. Both are gone. Future generations will inherit debt left behind from their parents. We are currently pinched between taking care of our college children and parents financially. Our college students depend more and more on their parents and have no consideration for the element of time- they have their entire lives to pay back loans, instead parents are borrowing against their 401k to fund the education. This is a disaster waiting to happen when retirement rolls around.

In closing, I would like to commend Frontline for a job well done

Thank you.

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Dear FRONTLINE,

Shocked? I'm shocked that there was nary a mention of the fact that a whole generation is becoming virtually unemployable. As a mid-50s female with many friends and colleagues, both male & female, all college-educated high-functioning professional folk living in both urban and rural areas, who have already experienced mutilple lay-offs and major difficulty regaining employment in their chosen field, let alone any employment at all, I find it almost unbearable that there have not been more responses aimed at the "What Jobs?" issue. A previous writer said she is approaching her late 50s & beyond with terror. I think most of us have already experienced a taste of that. We can't all find employment at Home Depot--a solution that the "experts" seem to feel is out there. Those of us who can, will try to pursue an entrepreneurial course, but we're not all cut out for that. What else will be out there for us?

As the show made clear, corporate America is not willing to function without the fat cats at the top maintaining their pots of gold; no matter how they spin it, salaries frequently are not high enough to cover more than subsisting, with perhaps a movie thrown in once a month or so. How can anyone assume that we're just not trying hard enough to save when we--especially us urban middle-incomers--can barely survive on what we're making? And that does not begin to address the pressure added as we develop health problems. We have to remember that, not only will many of us aging boomers be unable to cover our health expenses, but we may also be rendered even more unemployable. Then what?

Lynne Arany
New York, NY

Dear FRONTLINE,

Thanks for picking this topic for a special report. I thought you did an excellent job of covering the big issues in one, easy-to-watch hour. I've seen the program twice (the second time last night), and read the discussion. I can offer one thought that I haven't seen so far.

It seems to be an article of faith that nobody could "live on just Social Security". Hence, it's important to save lots - with the "experts" saying that most people will need 8 to 10 times their annual earnings in order to retire.

I find this hard to believe. In fact, I think that millions of middle income workers are "living on just Social Security" today. It hardly makes sense to tell them to reduce their spending today so they can spend more after they retire.

I know this is heresy, let me explain. The Social Security retirement benefit for median income workers who work to "normal retirement age" is about 40% of their before-retirement earnings.

Compare that to a working married couple, with a median income, two children, and a mortgage. About 15% of this couple's wages go to withholding taxes (FICA, FIT, and state income tax). Maybe another 20% covers the principal and interest on the mortgage. They spend about 25% for their children's' food, clothing, medical care, education, and transportation. This leaves (I'll admit, a little too conveniently) 40% of their income to pay for utilities, home maintenance, and the parents' food, clothing, medical care, and transportation.

Retired people don't pay FICA. If they have "just Social Security", they don't pay income taxes. If the house is paid for, and the children are on their own, the retirees can live just as well as the workers even though their gross income is less than half.

Now, all the experts know that the retired couple can't possibly make ends meet on "just social security". So, how is the working couple supposed to make ends meet, and find the dollars to build up a nest egg of 8 times earnings? I think the experts are giving good advice to their wealthy neighbors, who earn multiples of the median income, but aren't connecting with the people across town.

A better plan for the median couple is find a house with a mortgage that they can pay off before they retire. Then set a realistic goal for a get-out-of-debt age. If that age is before their Social Security normal retirement age, they might be able to start saving when they are debt free, and then retire a little early or retire a little better.

(I understand that if they have a 401k available with a good company match, a sharp pencil may show they're better paying off just the highest interest debt and then funding the 401k before retiring the mortgage. However, that calls for sophistication that your program says most people don't have. When in doubt, their best form of "saving" is to get out of debt.)

This doesn't sound like a retirement filled with foreign travel, and it isn't. As you know, real incomes in the US aren't going up. Most careful spenders will be able to "afford to retire". However, median income people should expect to carry the same very careful spending habits they developed when they were working into retirement.

On a completely separate issue, your experts point out that people who do build up big 401k balances have a problem determining how much of that they can really spend each year. If retirees really prefer the pension format, they can buy an inflation adjusted life annuity from a few companies. For a 65 year-old, Vanguard will convert a $100,000 lump sum into an annual income of about $5,500, which will increase annually with the CPI. I'm sure that more companies would offer this product if they believed there were a demand for it.

Paul Lawin
Waverly, Iowa

Dear FRONTLINE,

I was surprised that there was no mention of the role a personal financial planner plays in working with people to help them acheive their financial goals. The program made it sould like there is no help for people in making their decisions on how to allocate their 401k's, spending vs saving rollover money, not realizing how much they may need in retirement and how to use their funds for income. There is a whole indusrty of professionals available to help people with these life decisions. I agree that most Americans do need that help. The show would have been a great opportunity to add a positve note that help is available and people do not need to be on their own.

Delmar, NY

Dear FRONTLINE,

I have to say I was extremely disappointed with this parade of victims and pessimists. I am 38 years old and participated in a 401K for 8 years and was still able to amass $135,000 in that short time even with the 3-4 down years after the dot com bubble burst. (I am still waiting for my Dupont stock to get back to even.) The notion that we are all entitled to a retirement is bogus. I would suspect that there were very few people that "retired" before the advent of Social Security in the 1930's. In short there are no guarantees in life, so the best thing we all can do is take control of our own finances and live well within our means when we're young. Abide by the philosophy of pay now and play later. Save aggressively, diversify and get your house paid for as soon as possible.

Drew Brumbaugh
Eleele, HI

Dear FRONTLINE,

Some posts criticize your program while others applaud it. I applaud your efforts at creating discussion on the retirement policy of the US, both private and public sector. Between traditional DB and 401(k), union plans (known as multi-emplyer), public sector government DB and DC plans, social security, AND Medicare and corporate retiree medical plans, there is significant underfunding or no funding at all. And the bill to pay these benefits is coming due - either to companies or to taxpayers. The accounting and funding rules are only one factor affecting why corporations are making the changes that they are. Unions and governments are not making as many changes, at least not as fast. If as a nation we don't have a fundamental discussion of how we will pay for all of these benefits and what our country's retirement philosophy is, then depending on ourselves and our savings will be all some of us will have. We need leadership in Congress and the White House to stand up help us address these issues.

William Walter
New York City, NY

Dear FRONTLINE,

Lets not worry to much. Sure all of us are worried about surviving our old age, but did anyone ever think about retiring in another country. I have been to Mexico, Central America, South America, and even southeast Asia

In some of these countries especially the Philippines, Thailand, and Mexico a retiree could easily live a nice life. Even with $90,000.00 (yes ninety thousand dollars) In American standards this amount would probably not last long, because of the high cost of living, and expensive healthcare costs. Forget Florida, Nevada, Arizona. Go abroad.

A small pension, social security, 401K (even if the amount is small) and any savings a person has would go very far in some developing countries.

I plan on retiring in the Philippines.

People have to discipline themselves and find a way to save.It can be done.

I myself do not make much money per year (under 25,000.00) but have managed to save quite a sum.

So get out your swimming trunks, beach balls, and suntan lotion.Stop being stressed. Relax and enjoy life.

John Lanzillotti
Chicago, Illinois

Dear FRONTLINE,

Dear Frontline,

While an interesting and unfortunately sad story, no mention or comparison was made of the only "class" of people whom do not confront the uncertainy of retirement and losses of benefits.This would be the 20% in this country employed by the municipal, state, and federal governments. Somehow, while the rest of us scramble and try to figure out how to fund our retirements and are told we must look forward to working well into our 60's, government workers put in 30 years, and are guaranteed lifetime pensions and many times, benefits by law regardless of their age at retirement. Why are these glaring differences between what the "private" and "public" sectors are now faced with never considered in these discussions. Maybe if it were, people might wake up to the other part of the retirement scam we are all stuck paying for, demand some way over due changes.

carl mclean
barrington hills, illinois

FRONTLINE's editors respond:

Public pensions are also in financial trouble. Click here to read more.

Dear FRONTLINE,

It's great to see some media attention on this subject, and I think the Frontline story provided even-handed coverage.

I happen to work for one of the legacy airlines that is not under bankruptcy protection, and I'd also like to see a story on the burden placed on competitors when a poorly run company like United Airlines is rewarded for its poor management (the greedy and short-sited unions also play their role). The company I work for is trying to honor the commitments made to employees through pension plans which continue to be funded year after year, but how long can a company successfully compete when the competition doesn't have to play by the same rules (or any rules at all)?

Congress' pension reform act (H.R. 4) only served to enhance the position of poorly run airlines, with Delta and Northwest (also in bankruptcy) receiving special treatment over the other airlines that have to compete with them.

Please consider doing a follow-up story on the developments in these areas since the original Frontline story was done.

Thanks!

Bryan Jones
Houston, Texas

FRONTLINE's editors respond:

Click here for more on the Pension Protection Act of 2006, which was signed after this report first aired.

Dear FRONTLINE,

I'm concerned about the statment that John C. Bogle made where he warns 401(k) investors about mutual funds' often hidden costs and fees which, over the long term, can consume a huge portion of investors' returns. Do I need to worry about what money I will have at the time of my retirement because of hidden costs and fees? Where can I research these hidden costs and fees? I really don't want any surprises when I retire.

Herman Caballero
Elkin, nc

FRONTLINE's editors respond:

Click here for an illustration of what Bogle calls the "tyranny of compounding costs."

more

home : introduction : site map : watch online : need to know : retirement stories : interviews : changing world
poll - how are you doing? : join the discussion : producer's chat : teacher's guide : readings & links
dvd/vhs & transcript : press reaction : credits : privacy policy
FRONTLINE series home : wgbh : pbs

posted may 16, 2006

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
photo copyright © corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Losing IraqJuly 29th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS