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Keep expectations real when planning retirement

The chances are pretty good that, at one time or another, you've thought about the 'ideal' retirement. But have you really considered what it takes to get there?

Unfortunately, many people do not have realistic expectations about how to fund the retirement lifestyle they envision, nor are they at all clear about how much income they can count on during their retirement years. Consider these disturbing findings from the Employee Benefit Research Institute's 2006 Retirement Confidence Survey:

Low savings - Fifty-two percent of the surveyed workers who are saving for retirement reported total savings and investments of less than $50,000, excluding the value of their home or any defined benefit plan. (Defined benefit plans are the traditional pension plans, which are rapidly being frozen.)

Inflated expectations of benefits - Many workers are counting on benefits that they are not going to receive. While 40 percent of workers said they or their spouses currently have a defined benefit plan, 61 percent say they expect to receive income from this type of plan in retirement. In other words, many people are counting on receiving a guaranteed pension in their retirement years - even though their employers don't offer one.

Unrealistic views of income needed during retirement - 59 percent of the surveyed workers say that, during retirement, they will want a standard of living that is the same as, or better than, the one they have now. Yet half the workers think they can enjoy a comfortable retirement on 70 percent or less of their pre-retirement income.

Clearly, many working Americans are just not 'getting it' when it comes to paying for retirement. To avoid falling into this group, what should you do?

First, know what to expect from your employer's retirement plan. A 401(k) or other type of defined contribution plan won't offer the predictable income of a pension. Yet, a 401(k) does offer good opportunities for building retirement savings; your money grows on a tax-deferred basis, and, if you're fortunate, your employer will match some of your contributions. But it's up to you to choose from the mix of available investments to provide the maximum potential for long-term growth, given your individual risk tolerance and time horizon. So, contribute as much as you can afford to your 401(k), and when you get salary increases, bump up your contributions.

What else can you do to improve your retirement-savings outlook? Look beyond your 401(k) for other tax-advantaged opportunities, such as an IRA and a fixed annuity. And try to gradually build a diversified portfolio of high-quality stocks, bonds and other securities.

Finally, don't underestimate how much money you will need to pay for retirement. You could spend two or three decades as an active retiree, and to maintain the lifestyle you want, you may well need 80 percent - or more - of your pre-retirement income, with the exact amount depending on your individual lifestyle.

By educating yourself on what sort of financial resources you need during retirement, and by estimating what you can expect from your employer-sponsored retirement plan and Social Security, you can create a long-term savings and investment strategy that should serve you well - and help you avoid unpleasant surprises - when you retire.

Belinda Petshow is an investment representative of Edward D. Jones in Forest Grove.