Self-imposed retirement delusion.

The American dream is financial independence, but we aren’t saving or planning enough for retirement. Everybody knows this, but we aren’t doing enough about it. Frankly, the gulf between what people know and what they’re doing has progressed beyond “inadequate planning,” it’s outright delusional.

How much do you need? Around 20 times your annual spending needs. That will allow you to withdraw 5% a year and still handle the bumps and bruises that markets will inevitably serve over time. Conservatively, I use 22 times my desired retirement spending needs, and that doesn’t include income from any source other than savings.

If you have a pension or fixed annuity, you can subtract that from your annual needs to do the calculation. If you’re older than 50, you can probably plan to receive the social security benefits you’ve been promised. If you’re 40 to 50, be ready to give those benefits a significant haircut. If you’re below 40, like me, don’t count on it (by the way, the more you save, the less likely you’ll be to get it).

Assuming the average John and Jane Doe need around $40,000 a year to live on, they’ll need $800,000 to retire. Americans aren’t even on a glide-path to reach that point–they’re on a different planet.

According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute’s 2010 survey, 54% of those currently working have less than $25,000 in savings and 88% have less than $250,000. Those already retired are even worse off: 56% with less than $25,000 and 88% less than $250,000.

It’s not just a matter of not having saved enough, it’s a matter of even having thought about it. Both retirees and workers are confident they have or will have enough to retire. And, this is from a group where only 46% have even tried to calculate how much they’ll need! Delusional.

How do workers and retirees expect to get by? That’s where the survey gets scary. 66% of workers expect to keep working past 65. The percent of actual retirees that work past 65? 39%. In other words, people expect to keep working past 65, but don’t–not because they don’t want or need to, but because they can’t. Why? Because they get fired, can’t find work, or, most frequently, have health issues that make working impossible.

A startling 70% of those currently working expect to continue working in retirement to pay the bills. The percent of retirees who actually manage to do this: 33%.

The average worker expects his retirement income to come from working in retirement and a pension (even though the vast majority admit they don’t have pensions and won’t because few companies offer them). Where do actual retirees get most of their retirement income? Social security.

So, most people are planning to keep working, but the data clearly shows that won’t happen for most. And, most expect to get a pension even though they don’t have one and have no clear path for getting one. The reality is that most retirees rely on social security, but only 30% of people working and 52% of those currently retired expect social security to be available. This fantasy will turn to farce, but it’s won’t be funny.

The stock market–by itself–won’t bail us out, either. Trend-line growth of 6% plus a 2% dividend yield means we should expect only 8% returns (which includes 3% inflation). But, most people won’t even get those returns because they’ll pay too much in fees and then they’ll chase performance (selling what “didn’t work” to buy what’s recently “been working”). The reality is that most people will get returns that simply match inflation.

What’s the real solution? Save more, save more, save more (which conversely means: spend less, spend less, spend less). I’m 39 and have 20% of the savings I’ll need in 26 years (assuming 65 retirement, whether I like it or not!). Assuming I can get market returns (even though I’ve beat the market by 5% on average, annually over the last 14 years), I’ll need to save 10% of my annual income to get there. I’m saving 20%. In other words, I’m not planning to get there with just enough if everything goes right, I’m assuming things won’t go right and building a margin of safety into my plan.

It’s time to drop the delusion and act. That action means saving more, spending less, investing wisely, and planning to have more than needed. The benefits are more than simply having peace of mind, it’ll be food on the table and a roof over your head when you’re too old to fix past mistakes.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.