Finance 101: Boomers must plan, save for retirement, kids' college bills

Posted: Thursday, May 17, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) -- Saving for retirement and her children's college education is so huge and daunting that Sharron Luttrell doesn't have a clue how to begin.

''Where do we start? How do we even know what options are available to us?,'' asked the 39-year-old Boston mother of two.

What Luttrell does know is that she and her 50 year-old husband Martin better get up to speed financially -- fast.

''College is only 10 years away instead of far off in the distant future,'' said Luttrell, who's daughter Aviva turns 8 next month.

The Luttrells, counted among the nation's 76 million Baby Boomers, can't afford to procrastinate when it comes to financial planning. After all, like many of those born between 1946 and 1964, they'll be hit with tuition bills and possibly the cost of caring for their own elderly parents just as they near retirement.

''They are definitely going to be the first generation to feel the triple squeeze,'' said Christi Gebhart, a personal financial planner in New York who says many Boomers haven't prepared or thought that far ahead.

''They are reaching their 40s or 50s and starting to freak out a bit. They say, 'Oh my, we have spent everything we made,'' Gebhart said.

Boomers -- like anyone -- must start with the basics, say the experts: setting goals, tracking their spending, outlining assets and liabilities and developing a budget that includes a savings plan.

''It's never too early or too late to start planning for retirement. For boomers, it gets more difficult as time goes on,'' said Kenn Tacchino, associate professor of taxation at Widener University in Chester, Pa. ''You just have to march double-time to catch up.''

For starters, here's what the pros suggest:

1. Establish goals.

When New Yorkers Melinda and Rob DeRocker hired Gebhart in January, they realized they'd been paying more attention to their careers than what they were working for.

''I thought more about what my next business trip is than my long-term financial picture,'' said Rob DeRocker, 42 and co-owner of a public relations firm.

Gebhart made the couple write down their goals.

Now he and Melinda, 46, know they want to own a second home in the next five years and have $500,000 in long-term savings in 20 years. They also want to have money set aside to care for their parents if necessary.

2. Track expenses.

Monitor spending for at least three months, said Gebhart, who guarantees people will be surprised where they could cut back. She and her husband bought a coffee maker when they learned they were spending $275 a month getting it to go.

''Would I ever chose to spend $275 a month on coffee? Of course not,'' Gebhart said.

3. Take advantage of your job's benefits.

''Many employers provide preretirement seminars. They should be attending those,'' said Tacchino, who also holds retirement seminars.

He also urges people to enroll in their company's 401(k) plan if there is one and to contribute the maximum amount that the employer will match.

4. Pay yourself first.

Have a plan to save a certain amount of money each week or month, and stick to it.

''Someone who wants to catch up is really going to have to save a lot,'' said Ray Forgue, associate professor of family studies at the University of Kentucky.

Forgue also suggested the Web as a resource for figuring out how much money you'll need to save every month for retirement or any financial goals. For example, money.com features a retirement calculator.

Figuring out where your money goes and your net worth might also inspire you to save more and trim expenses, he said.

5. Reduce spending.

''There are so many Boomers who got caught up in the yuppie '80s and lived for today,'' Tacchino said. ''They say, 'Geez, I would love to save for retirement, but I have too much on my plastic.''

Even if you don't have credit card debt, chances are you can and should cut back, Gebhart added.

Client Melinda DeRocker was appalled by the amount she was spending on little items like manicures and home furnishings. Because the DeRockers don't have credit card debt and can meet their monthly bills, including the mortgage on their two-bedroom co-op, they never thought about what they really could afford.

''I was dismayed by how little we were actually saving,'' she said. ''Little things add up so quickly. It was not one particular thing, but the whole picture that upset me, and I had to take a good hard look at myself.''

While Luttrell, the Boston mom, admits she'd rather not have to think about her finances, she knows there's no escaping it. She is taking some first steps of her own -- looking into a tax-deferred college savings plan and a retirement seminar offered by Boston College, her employer.

''It's not something I can keep putting off,'' she said. ''I can't assume everything will work out OK.''

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