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The Luck of the Irish

One of the more memorable vacations of my youth was one that was just me, my younger brother and my grandparents. It was a driving vacation, one that had limits only in terms of its beginning and end. There was no agenda, no place we had to be at a particular time, and – at least according to my grandparents – no reservations anywhere along the way. My grandfather kept saying we could rely on “the luck of the Irish,” though to my understanding at the time we didn’t have any genetic rationale to count on that. But, sure enough, we spent every night during that trip – during vacation season in the Great Smokey Mountains – in a hotel (though not always the first one we pulled into).

That all came back to me about a decade ago when I was driving with my family near the Grand Canyon. We hadn’t planned to be there until the next day, but our plans worked out differently, and we started talking about being at the Grand Canyon for sunrise, and, in a rare burst of spontaneity, all of a sudden it became something of a “mission.” I remember sharing gleefully with my kids my grandfather’s vacation mantra.

As it turned out, our commitment to the new “objective” notwithstanding, it took longer to get to there than I had thought, and when, sometime after 10:00 p.m., after finding there was “no room at the inn” (literally) at an embarrassing number of places (and this after filtering the ones we called on the way and got the same answer), we began to seriously contemplate the possibility of spending the night in a hotel… parking lot.

I get a little of that same sick feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I see the statistics on retirement need calculations. Retirement realities notwithstanding, the Retirement Confidence Survey (RCS) published by the nonpartisan Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI) has for more than a quarter century found that less than half of Americans have ever done any kind of calculation (even once) as to the income they’ll need to live on in retirement. Worse, most who have done so have… guessed. Granted, those don’t have the immediacy of needing an answer for “tonight,” but with so many surveys revealing that so many workers wind up retiring (or worse, involuntarily being retired) earlier than they had planned – well, it always seems to me that they are counting on “the luck of the Irish” to carry the day.

That’s too bad because these days there are many relatively simple and yet pretty sophisticated ways to at least take a stab at figuring out what you’ll need to live once you quit working (or it quits you, as they say). I suppose there are plenty of rational reasons to put it off – a lack of time, a lack of expertise, or access to someone who has that expertise, uncertainty about where to go, or how to do it once you get there – perhaps even concern that it will produce a result – a reality – they just can’t bear to confront. And with all the headlines touting all the potential bad news about retirement, who can blame them?

That said, and particularly in this National Retirement Planning Week, Here’s some things that those who haven’t done a calculation – or who haven’t done one in a while – should keep in mind.

There are lots of easy (and free) ways to do the calculation on your own.

Chances are your workplace retirement plan has one on the website that already has a lot of information about your current situation loaded in. And it may even offer the ability for you to make some adjustments in your current savings or investments to improve your current situation. The Ballpark E$timate, provided by the American Savings Education Council ( is a good option, and organizations like AARP and the Consumer Federation of America also offer alternatives.

It won’t take as long as you think.

A lot depends on which calculator you use, how complicated your financial situation is, and how much thought you’ve given to the subject before you sat down in front of the calculator. And things will go a lot faster if you have a sense of when you plan to quit working, and if you have taken the time to pull together the statements from your 401(k), IRA, etc. But, once you’ve got your statements together, you can get through most of these in less than an hour.

You’ll feel – and likely be – better off after you have done a calculation.

If you’re nervous about this process – well, that’s normal. However, for years now the Retirement Confidence Survey (RCS) published by the Employee Benefit Research Institute has found that those who have done a calculation wind up being more confident about their retirement prospects than those who haven’t. And the RCS has also found an increase in the chances of being financially prepared for retirement as well.

You can get help.

It’s increasingly likely that if you have a workplace retirement plan, such as a 401(k), you also have access to the support of an advisor who knows your plan, is familiar with these tools, and will be glad to help you go through the process. And the process of helping figure out ways to improve your odds of a financially secure retirement – all year long.

p.s.: Our lack of planning made for a chilly night at the Grand Canyon, though we spent it in a camper park, not a hotel parking lot. That discomfort made it all the easier for us to attain our primary objective – to see the Grand Canyon at sunrise – something we’d surely never have done if we’d actually gotten into a warm hotel bed that night. We got some great memories from that trip – but I’ve not been willing to rely on the “luck of the Irish” since.