Don’t Repeat These Five Mistakes Boomers Made on the Road to Retirement

As a generation that famously came of age amid postwar prosperity, baby boomers experienced a level of wealth and opportunity largely unheard of by their parents or grandparents.

All of that wealth, however, has not necessarily translated into being financially prepared for retirement.

According to research from Legg Mason, the average baby boomer has saved less than half of the $658,000 they think they’ll need to comfortably transition out of the workforce. The survey of 900 investors found that the average amount boomers have in employer sponsored retirement plans is $263,000. Older boomers, those 65 to 74, have an average of $300,000.

It’s a reality that’s left many boomers worried about making ends meet during retirement and contemplating the reality of working much longer than expected. But financial professionals say younger generations can learn from the mistakes of boomers. In other words, pay close attention to where they went wrong and don’t fall into the same traps yourself.

So what are the biggest financial missteps made by baby boomers? Here are some of the top answers from experts across the country.

Mistake No. 1: Buying Too Much Real Estate

Overextending and buying a large home is a losing strategy when it to when it comes to laying the groundwork for retirement, says Robert Johnson, principal at the Fed Policy Investment Research Group and former president and CEO of the American College of Financial Services.

“Larger homes have greater initial costs and greater ongoing costs, including maintenance and property taxes, when compared to smaller, starter homes,” explained Johnson. “Many younger people, or older people for that matter, would be much better off by renting or buying a smaller home and investing the savings in financial assets for the long run.”

People also mistakenly continue to believe real estate is a good, safe investment and that their home will dramatically rise in value over long periods of time. What they don’t realize, said Johnson, is that from 1890 to 1990 the inflation-adjusted appreciation in the U.S. housing market was just about zero.

Viewing your home as a vehicle to prepare you for retirement, at the expense of adequately channeling savings into other more liquid wealth accounts, can have lasting consequences, says Drew Kellerman, founder of Phase 2 Wealth Advisors in Gig Harbor, Wash.

“Don’t misunderstand: Paying down a home loan and eventually being debt-free is an excellent plan,” Kellerman explained. “That said, counting on your home equity for your future living expenses can be highly problematic.”

Home equity can be accessed in one of three ways – selling the home, taking out a line of credit, or obtaining a reverse mortgage.

“What do all three options have in common? They all assume that housing prices will forever continue to rise – or at least not crash – just before you need to get at that equity,” Kellerman noted. “This means you’re treating your home as a retirement asset, or investment. If so, and all your savings are tied up in your equity, this’s a disturbing lack of diversification.”

By all means, obtain the lowest interest rate mortgage you can and pay it down quickly, but not at the expense of building other, well diversified retirement assets.

Mistake No. 2: Investing Too Conservatively

When it comes to building wealth, one can either sleep well or eat well, says Johnson.

Investing conservatively allows one to sleep well, as there isn’t much volatility in that approach. But, it doesn’t allow you to eat well in the long run because your account typically won’t grow much.

“Since 1926, according to data compiled by Ibbotson Associates, the average annual return for large capitalization common stocks is 10%. Government and corporate bonds return around 6%, while cash is in the neighborhood of 3%,” Johnson explained. The surest way to build wealth over the long run is to invest in stocks, Johnson said, but too many people invest very conservatively and miss out on that opportunity. “If you have a long time horizon, you should invest in a diversified portfolio of common stocks.”

Mistake No. 3: Underestimating How Long They Will Live

The parents of many boomers may have only lived until their 50s and 60s, and as a result, boomers figured they wouldn’t live much longer than that themselves, says Misty Lynch, a Boston-based certified financial planner with John Hancock Advice.

“That may have kept them from saving a lot for retirement because they didn’t think it would be necessary,” said Lynch.

As we all know, however, times have changed and life expectancy is much longer thanks to improvements in health care. The average life expectancy in the United States is about 78.6 years old, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics. And if you manage to make it to 65, you’re likely to live into your mid-80s on average.

Underestimating their own longevity has resulted in at least two problems for boomers: many don’t have enough cash socked away to cover two or three decades of retirement, and they’re not prepared for the health care costs they’ll face during that lengthy stretch.

“Young professionals should be aware of health care costs and take advantage of things like Health Savings Accounts if they’re offered through their health insurance,” added Lynch. “If you’re young and don’t have a lot of medical expenses, these accounts can grow and be used tax-free to cover those costs when you retire.”

Mistake No. 4: Over-Investing While Carrying High-Interest Debt

It’s not unusual for baby boomer clients, or clients of any age, to come into Kellerman’s office talking about their $15,000 credit card balances — on which they’re paying 21% interest while simultaneously trying to save for retirement.

“Carrying high-interest consumer debt is, unfortunately, quite common today. What is utterly bewildering, though, is when we hear it from a boomer who’s also maxing out their IRA and 401k contributions,” said Kellerman. “In other words, they are aggressively saving while carrying high-interest debt.”

If the plan is to pay that credit card debt down aggressively within one year, while also still contributing to a 401k program in order to get the matching employer contribution, then Kellerman says that may be a good approach.

“The time I shake my head is when people are making minimum payments on their credit card debt and then maxing out a 401k or contributing over and above the employer match,” continued Kellerman. “There is no leverage to that additional contribution to the 401k. Yes, there’s compounding interest, but at the same time you’re putting an extra $50 in your 401k, you’re paying $75 in credit card interest each month.”

Moral of the story? Get your credit card debt under control before making excessive 401k contributions, otherwise you’re not really gaining any financial ground.

Mistake No. 5: Starting Too Late

The one thing nobody can get back is lost time, says Matt Reiner, CEO and co-founder of the finance app Wela and author of “Ready to be Rich: Smart Financial Advice for People on the Way Up.”

“Many baby boomers started saving for retirement too late and expect to live the same lifestyle,” says Reiner. If you wait until your late 50s to start investing in your retirement plan, no financial advisor or technology solution will be able to miraculously make you the money you need to retire by 65, says Reiner.

Younger generations should begin by automating their savings, he advises. Even if you start small, the most important part is to simply get started.

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Mia Taylor

Contributor for The Simple Dollar

Mia Taylor is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. She has worked for some of the nation’s best-known news organizations such as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Taylor holds a graduate degree in Journalism and Media Studies and had a fellowship to study journalism at the San Diego affiliate of National Public Radio. Over the course of her career, she has won numerous journalism industry honors, including five awards from the North American Travel Journalists Association and the 2011 Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism.