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The Sure Not-So-Sure Thing

Practice Management

By some accounts, I recently spent a week in “retirement” — driving around sightseeing, reading some good books, hanging out with family, and yes — even walking on a beach.

And I have to tell you — if that was retirement, I don’t know how I’m going to afford it.

Now, I realize that isn’t the stuff of most “real” retirements, though it is frequently the stuff of retirement planning brochures. My week was a family vacation, and it was spent doing the things that families do on vacations.[1] And it served as a stark reminder that while sitting on a beach doesn’t cost much, making arrangements to stay — and eat — in proximity to the aforementioned beach is a whole other financial consideration.

That said, when those actually in retirement are asked about their retirement confidence — well, it’s pretty high. According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute/Greenwald Associates annual Retirement Confidence Survey, 77% of current retirees report feeling either very (33%) or somewhat confident about having enough money to live comfortably throughout their retirement years. All of which suggests that if there’s a lot of uncertainty about what retirement will be like/cost, once you’re “in it”—well, you both have a sense of what it’s going to cost, and how much you have to cover it.[2] That, by the way, despite the reality that the same RCS has for years found that significant numbers of individuals have found themselves in retirement through no choice of their own[3] — sometimes due to health, sometimes due to employment-related decisions. 

Today we are looking at an unusual confluence of events: a tight job market in the middle of what has been termed the “Great Resignation,” surging inflation at rates not seen in a generation, and investment markets that, after a remarkable run-up — well, let’s just say it’s been rough on most 401(k) accounts. We’re getting the same kinds of investment advice we always do/give during such downturns — but one can’t help but wonder if it’s “different” this time—if the disruptions are anything but “transitory.”

“Disruptions” are the bane of a fixed income, of course. Just when you think you have it all balanced out, you have to spend (a lot) more for gasoline, pay a higher real estate tax bill, scrape up some money for a new prescription drug, or deal with the financial consequences of an unexpected medical emergency (or that of a loved one). That this happens at the same time that your investment portfolio is taking a sustained “hit” contributes to the sense of economic pessimism that garners so much press, polling and political aspirant attention in this election season. Without question, things cost more than they did (when you can find them on the store shelf), and those on fixed incomes (and that includes a growing number of current workers who perhaps haven’t gotten a pay increase in a while) have to make “adjustments”—often painful ones. And if all of this doesn’t warrant changes in financial plans, it certainly warrants a new level of discussion about them.  

Perhaps the only “sure” things are death and taxes after all—but the lesson for those of us still drawing a paycheck and planning for retirement is the importance of preparing for that third “sure” thing when it comes to retirement planning: uncertainty.


[1] In fairness, we also spend a day tracking down the gravesites of some ancestors, and that probably isn’t on most vacation agendas!

[2] It’s worth highlighting, of course, that workers reporting they or their spouse have money in a DC plan or IRA or have benefits in a DB plan from a current or previous employer are twice as likely as those without any of these plans to be at least somewhat confident (83% with a plan vs. 40% without one). 

[3] In the 2022 RCS, 32% who retired earlier than planned say they did so because of a hardship, such as a health problem or disability, not related to COVID-19. Another 23% say that they retired due to changes at their company, but 38% say they could afford to retire earlier.