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Make sure you're doing all you can to plan for retirement

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It could be said that this is the best of times and the worst of times when it comes to Americans and retirement. Despite the fact that household wealth is currently at a record $44 trillion, a surprising number of people - working and retired - are woefully unprepared for their financial futures. "The retirement fears of today's workers are justified," said Beth Hirschhorn of MetLife Financial Services. "Most people greatly underestimate the likelihood of living beyond average life expectancy and also underestimate how much money they will need in retirement." According to MetLife's Employee Benefits Trend Study, 48 percent of workers rank "outliving their savings" as the greatest retirement fear. "Alarmingly, among employees in the 41 to 60 age group, many of whom are on the brink of retirement, only 4 percent have reached their goals," Hirshhorn said. The consequences of the lack of retirement planning could be devastating. A study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that there could be an annual shortfall of at least $45 billion between the amount retired Americans will need to live comfortably in retirement and what they have available in assets and income. "The lack of readiness for retirement is overwhelming," said John Rother, strategy director for the American Association of Retired Persons. "Social Security - lifetime guaranteed and inflation protected - obviously remains crucial for most older Americans in achieving a secure retirement." The future of Social Security is a subject of much discussion. Although politicians are hesitant to suggest a cut or benefits or an increase in payroll taxes, the need to address the program is critical. A study by Junior Achievement found that nearly half (48.7 percent) of teenagers surveyed believe that they will receive Social Security benefits when they retire. People who opt to postpone their retirement planning efforts certainly can't blame their lack of action on a shortage of information. Just about every financial services firm, insurance company and many individual employers are ramping up their retirement education programs. "With much of the workforce at their peak earning years, employers have a timely opportunity to help individuals maximize savings opportunities through employer sponsored plans and reinforce the need for a self-sufficient retirement future," said Cynthia Hayes, vice president of the retirement group at Merrill Lynch. The firm's annual Retirement Preparedness Survey finds that 54 percent of workers plan to stay employed full- or part-time after they reach the age of 65. They cite financial reasons, and a desire to remain active and involved in the community as the reason to stay on the job. Fifteen percent of the people surveyed said they never want to retire. Companies like Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance see retirement planning as a way to pitch their investment products to a group in desperate need for help - the 76 million baby boomers who are closing in on possible retirement. MassMutual has created a savings product division to help boomers create reliable, retirement income solutions. "For most of the 20th century, people worried about the financial burden of dying young," said Terri Forde of MassMutual. "Now, the primary concern has shifted to outliving one's assets." Of course, before boomers can start investing in stocks and bonds, they have to deal with another big financial situation: A mountain of consumer debt. A report by CoolSavings, an online marketing company, found that 72 percent of consumers plan to do a better job of managing their money in 2004. That includes such tactics as using coupons, shopping at discount stores, limiting credit card usage, buying groceries in bulk, and limiting ATM visits. "Consumers are becoming more aware of their daily spending habits and how important it is to evaluate and improve those habits in order to save money," said Ken Treske, chief marketing officer at CoolSavings. But, what if budgeting and savings don't result in the necessary money to live comfortably in retirement? Well, a lot of Americans plan to fund their future the old fashioned way - with an inheritance. A famous survey conducted in 1993 projected that approximately $10 trillion would be transferred one generation to the next by 2040. The report anticipated that the average bequest would be $90,000 per person. However, a new report by AARP about the distribution of wealth paints an entirely different picture. Thanks to modern medicine, older Americans now live longer and healthier lives. And, that means they spend more of their nest eggs. As a result, five out of six boomers now say they don't expect to receive an inheritance. "In general, inheritances will not make a significant splash for the retirement savings of most boomers," reads the AARP report. "But, for those nearing retirement, a large inheritance might be a factor in the timing of their retirement." In reality, whether retirement proves to be the best of time or the worst of time depends on conventional wisdom for working Americans: Invest early and often.

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