Boomers: How to age gracefully

Everybody knows about the sandwich generation. That’s us. We have kids in college and aging parents who may need financial help. We – the boomers – are smashed in between, trying to pay for it all and save a little something for our retirement too. No surprise – it isn’t going so well. Only about 40% of boomers have managed to save $100,000 or more, and hardly anyone is maxing out a 401(k) plan.

We’ve managed to ignore the financial challenges associated with aging for a long time; until recently they’ve mostly been in our future. But for more and more of us the future is now, and the stress is starting to show. A Money Magazine survey found boomers less satisfied at this time in life than previous generations – with our finances, our careers, our health and even our marriages. We aren’t just singing, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” We’re living it.

Still, things aren’t as dire as they seem. It’s time to identify what’s bothering you and take some action. Is it your job? Lack of savings? Not being able to retire anytime soon? If it’s your marriage that’s leaving you flat, you’ll have to go elsewhere for guidance. But for the money stuff, try this:

Consider the root cause

Part of the problem may simply be that our expectations started out so high. We were, after all, the generation that was going to change the world. And because of our sheer numbers, businesses have long devised products and services to address our every problem and cater to our every whim. We’re the most educated, pampered generation in American history. We work hard and feel entitled to live well.

Yet we have real obstacles to living the good life that our parents didn’t face – the decline of pensions, job security and affordable health care, just to name a few. Many of us are waking to our first chronic aches and pains and realizing that 50 isn’t the new 30 after all. In one recent study, boomers had more trouble lifting 10 pounds and walking stairs than previous generations at this age. Are you kidding – after all those health clubs we joined?

Instead of bellyaching about your fate, though, you’ll feel a lot better if you focus on a few concrete steps that you can take to improve your lot. Start with the most important challenge: your health. So…

Move your body

Our health issues are real, the result of a sedentary lifestyle. Two-thirds of Americans are now overweight, a condition that leads to excessive joint wear (can you say hip replacement?), high cholesterol and high blood pressure (contributors to chronic illness).

Poor health is a financial risk as well as a physical one. Fidelity estimates that the average couple who retire at 65 will need $215,000 to pay their health-care costs for the rest of their lives.

But a big chunk of those costs is preventable, says Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging. From age 50 on, just walking 30 minutes three times a week can cut the cost of health care by $2,000 a year, according to a study by HealthPartners, an HMO.

“We’ve manufactured physical activity out of our society with things like elevators and computers,” Milner notes. Simple daily routines such as taking the stairs instead of an escalator or parking your car at the far end of the lot can make a big difference.

Adjust your expectations

You wouldn’t expect to run a marathon when you haven’t been training, and you shouldn’t expect to own a second home or retire early when you haven’t been saving aggressively. Take stock of your financial assets and job skills, then get real about how far they’ll take you and how soon you can get there. Are you on a job track that will lead to significantly more income? Is your nest egg large enough for a fabulous retirement? For a clue, see our retirement calculator.

If the answer comes as a rude blow to your imagined future, you need to change the picture or change what you’re doing to make it happen. If lack of money is the problem, for instance, take advantage of catch-up provisions that let you sock away an extra $5,000 a year in tax-deferred accounts once you turn 50.

Maybe it’s time to stop supporting your healthy adult children. Or downsize your home and move to a less expensive area. Or – egad! – cut some of your leisure spending. The best way to put more cash in your coffers: Retire later than you planned. “Every extra year you work is a ‘twofer,'” says David Certner, legislative policy director at AARP. “It’s a year that you make money and don’t spend savings.”

Make a bold move

What if the source of your dissatisfaction isn’t how much (or little) money you have but how you live your life? Maybe you regret not having a more fulfilling career or how little time you get to spend with your family. Well, it’s not too late to reinvent your career to focus on work you’ll actually enjoy, conducted on your terms.

I scored that dream arrangement two years ago, when I resigned from my full-time position at Time magazine but held on to a role as a contributing writer (later adding my column at Money Magazine to my regular freelance gigs). That gave me the freedom I wanted to write as little or as much as I chose, for whoever was interested, and to spend more time at home before my three teens flee the nest for good in a few years.

Maybe your bold move will be different, turning a hobby into a small business or your industry knowledge into a consultancy. Employers such as Boeing and IBM increasingly will work with you to downsize your career so you gain flexibility while still generating income. Second acts are powerful financial solutions.

Stop window-shopping

In happiness surveys, people in relatively poor nations often score higher than folks in the U.S. Why? Their neighbors tend to be poor too, and they do not feel disadvantaged in the comparison. However, “boomers are always comparing themselves to others and focusing on what they don’t have,” says Stephen Pollan, co-author of It’s All in Your Head: Thinking Your Way to Happiness.

Cut it out. One neighbor may have more, but another probably has less. Odds are you live a rich life – richer than your parents did. Just look at your house, cars, personal technology and travel and leisure and medical options. You may not have everything you want but, as the song goes, if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.

Article by Dan Kadlec
Friday, February 8, 2008


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