It’s no exaggeration that most of us spend more time thinking about the details of how we’ll ring in the New Year than we do planning for retirement.

That’s probably not so surprising when you consider that the former involves champagne and the latter is fraught with confusion; the discomfort of prioritizing tomorrow above the desires of today and fear of aging.

Here’s why you need to pay attention:

There’s a retirement savings crisis in our country.  More than 50% of Americans have little or nothing saved for the time in their lives when they no longer work. Some are already struggling to make ends meet. Others figure a spouse has it covered. Many individuals– women in particular — simply don’t know how or where to begin.  

One thing is for sure: sticking your head in the sand isn’t going to make the problem go away.

How did we get here?

A generation ago, planning for retirement wasn’t the big scary monster it is today. In the 1980s, more than one third of American workers had a pension to support them when they walked out the door at age sixty-something.  Back then, so-called middle-class people had savings accounts and families to take care of them in their later years.

Go back even further and we didn’t live as long — or as well — so few people had expectations of what life-after-work would look like. Our grandparents either worked until they dropped or could depend on Social Security to bridge the gap between their working years and the grave.

But pensions have gone the way of DVDs and answering machines.  Too few of us have saved well enough – if at all – to be comfortable, let alone in a position to live our dream of wintering in Tuscany during retirement.  Social Security was never intended to be the main source of income for people post work.

Let’s put it this way: most of us will work 30, 35 or 40 years to support a retirement that could stretch 30, 35 or even 40 years. How the heck does that math work?

It’s even worse for women

We all know that we’re paid less than men and that we often take time out of the workforce to have children and care for aging parents. As a result, our ability to save and invest for our “Golden Girl years” is drastically reduced. Compounding the problem is smaller monthly Social Security checks – also a factor of more gaps in our working years and lower pay – to get us to the finish line.

Yet we live longer than men and, therefore, it’s critical that we have more money socked away for we can’t work or get hired.

Women who are divorced, widowed or have never been married are likely to fare worse. Women of color are at higher risk of living in poverty as seniors than white women.

Beyond the numbers

As a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER, I am often asked “What’s my number?” by friends and clients. That’s retirement-speak for “how much do I need to save before I can quit the rat race and enjoy the serenity of retirement?”

Recently, a growing number of younger Americans have risen to mythical status claiming to have figured that out for themselves. Known as FIRE – Financially Independent Retired Early – they are 30 and 40- year-olds who have radically cut their spending to the bone so they don’t have to work anymore. (We’ll see how this works out for them in a couple of decades.)

For most of us, that ship has sailed.

Retirement calculators and complex spreadsheets aside, however, the more qualitative issues that come with post-work life years can be just as challenging for both groups: is your main social life at the office, how will you spend your days, have you adjusted to the inevitable change in identity?

If you haven’t thought about what you will do in retirement – and I mean in a serious and vivid way – then you’re not retirement ready, even if Monte Carlo simulations indicate you have a 99% chance of not outliving your money.

The point is — retirement is not just about the money. Sure, how much you’ve saved will impact the quality of your retirement. But the opposite is also true: the more you plan for your next phase of life the better it will be. It’s just as important to know what it will look like and feel like as it is to save and calculate how much money you will need not to die broke.

What’s a Woolfer to do?

Stop kicking yourself for what you could’ve, would’ve, or should’ve done to get financially fit for retirement had you only started earlier. There’s also no point blaming your spouse or ex either.

There’s a lot you can do 15, 10 and even 5 years before you call it quits at work that can turn this ship around if you start now.

    • Making room in the monthly budget so you can set up automatic savings is a good place to start.
    • Participating in employer retirement plans like a 401k or 403b is another way to regularly set aside money for your future.
    • Learning or getting professional guidance about the do’s and don’ts of investing can help you grow your money sensibly.

We’ll be talking about retirement savings plans and much, much more at the next Woolfer Kitchen Table Money Talk on Wednesday, May 1 hosted by Nina Lorez Collins.

Space is limited so don’t wait to reserve your spot. Sign up here.

Stephanie Genkin

Stephanie Genkin in a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ and the founder of My Financial Planner LLC, a NY-State Registered Investment Advisor. She is an adjunct instructor at New York University and frequently quoted in the media (Yahoo FinanceUSA TodayCNBC.com, Huffington Post and AARP, among others). Prior to a mid-career change, Stephanie was a news producer at CNN for 15 years and before that a foreign correspondent in the Middle East.  She earned a bachelor’s degree with honors in Journalism and Hebrew Literature from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and two master’s degrees in Modern Jewish History and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Oxford, St. Antony’s College in the U.K. She was a Fulbright scholar in Amman, Jordan.

Visit Stephanie’s Website