Take an inventory of your retirement assets

Posted: Friday, February 15, 2002

NEW YORK (AP) -- A lot of people worry that they haven't saved enough for retirement, and in many cases, that's true. If you want an idea of where you really stand, you should take a financial inventory.

''People often have more than they think,'' said Bambi Holzer, a senior vice president at A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc. of St. Louis. ''You have to look at all of your assets -- and then determine what more you can do.''

It's not too different from calculating your net worth, which financial experts suggest you do annually. Your net worth is simply the total value of what you own minus what you owe.

If you're not sure how to take that kind of financial snapshot, get a copy of the booklet ''Savings Fitness'' by writing to the Federal Consumer Information Center, Dept. 585J, Pueblo, Colo. 81009, or by calling 1-888-878-3256.

So what can Americans count on to support their life after work?

Start out by looking at the components that the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington, D.C., has identified as the major sources of income for today's retirees.

EBRI found that the income for Americans age 65 and over broke down to about 40 percent from Social Security and 20 percent each from pensions and annuities, personal savings and post-retirement jobs.

Dallas Salisbury, EBRI's chief executive, said pensions constitute a higher percentage of the income of wealthier individuals, while Social Security makes up the bulk of the money available to the poor.

''What in theory will be different 10 to 15 years from now is that new retirees are likely to have much more income coming from Individual Retirement Accounts and 401(k) accounts,'' Salisbury said. ''But that will be most heavily concentrated among the higher income groups.''

Americans, of course, have other potential sources of money they can tap in retirement.

''The first and most obvious would be your home, which for many is the biggest asset they'll ever have,'' said Holzer, author of ''Set for Life -- Financial Peace for People over 50.''

Retirees can tap the equity in their homes by downsizing to a smaller house or apartment, by refinancing or by borrowing against it, she said.

Couples who put money away for their children in what are called Section 529 college savings plans and end up with a surplus can in emergencies withdraw their funds. But Holzer pointed out that such withdrawals incur a 10 percent penalty on earnings and are treated as taxable income.

Inheritance is another possible source of money.

''A lot of people don't think about this, but grandparents or aunts or uncles might pass away and leave them money they didn't anticipate,'' Holzer said. The main recipients are likely to be baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, who are likely to benefit from the frugality of their parents.

Life insurance, too, can be cashed.

''Some people have invested in artwork, jewelry and other collectibles,'' Holzer pointed out. ''I wouldn't recommend this as a savings strategy unless people are really serious collectors. It's not liquid, but in an emergency it is there.''

Still, most Americans are best off if they focus on increasing their savings, Salisbury said.

They're nowhere near taking full advantage of tax-favored savings accounts, he noted.

Average contributions into 401(k) accounts are just 6.5 percent of earnings, and just 7 percent of American taxpayers last year said they contributed to traditional or Roth IRAs, Salisbury said.

He suggested savers in their 40s or younger might consider a strategy of contributing as much as is needed to a 401(k) account to get an employer's matching contribution, and then fund a Roth IRA. If a worker has more money to save, he or she can then increase the 401(k) contribution.

The advantage of maintaining a Roth IRA is that earnings are sheltered from tax and can be withdrawn tax-free starting at age 59 1/2. This year, the contribution limit was raised to $3,000; Americans 50 and over can add $500 more.

Savers 50 and older should first contribute the maximum $12,000 allowed into their 401(k) or 403(b) retirement plans, then look for other possible investments, Salisbury said. The limit for people under 50 is $11,000.

The Roth IRA is not always an option for this group, he said, because to qualify your adjusted gross income must be below $150,000 for a married couple filing jointly or $95,000 for a single person.


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