Are we in the middle class wearing blinders about retirement? We're told that more than 60 percent of Americans have less than $25,000 saved for retirement and 35 percent of Americans over 65 rely almost entirely on Social Security.
But where are the stories of Americans working into their 70s because they can't live on Social Security alone? Are Americans who can't work because of poor health or disability living lives of quiet desperation?
Those stories aren't told in public or in the media on a widespread basis because they're often hidden under a veil of credit card debt. Chris Hogan, a financial coach who is part of personal finance guru Dave Ramsey's legacy, said he hears the stories of shame and regret in every one of the 42 states he's visited, but it doesn't always mean people are living on less. An author of financial books and speaker at a recent event in Eden Prairie, Hogan said it's a hidden epidemic on which he plans to shine a light. "People are using debt [credit cards, home equity loans] to supplement their income," he said. "Debt is a normal way of life for them."
It never occurred to me that some Americans are charging their way through retirement to maintain a lifestyle that's unsustainable on Social Security.
I dislike fee-gobbling big banks and credit card companies as much as anyone, but they should not be responsible for my credit card debt if I die penniless. People trim their budgets in their earnings years so they can sock away 20 percent or more of their incomes toward retirement. We're driving older cars, trimming the cable cord and paying off our credit balance in full every month.
How do we get more people to save instead of spend their way into retirement? Suze Orman scolds people into better habits. She, like Judge Judy and Dr. Laura, finds timid souls who have made poor choices and berates them.
If bullying is what it takes so that people can live a life of dignity and live a richer life in retirement, maybe a dose of Suze lecturing and sermonizing isn't so bad.
But when Suze's tough love isn't your style, consider Ramsey and his crew. I'll admit that his penchant for quoting scripture to put people on the road to financial independence triggers an eye roll for me. But his fatherly approach to asking people about their spending habits isn't meant to embarrass or demean.
Freedom and choice
Ramsey Solutions' goal is to get people to save enough for retirement to give them freedom and choices. To do that, people need something to strive toward, a goal. "I want people to focus on what we can do this week first, then we can look at how to dominate the years going forward."
Hogan's new book, "Retire Inspired: It's Not an Age; It's a Financial Number," respects its audience. It gives hope and advice to people in their 60s and older who have no retirement savings. Despite being in the ninth inning, people in their 60s can still avoid the "burden and nightmare options," he writes.
If you don't think you'll spend hours reading a personal finance book, listen or watch Ramsey's shows at www.daveramsey.com or listen to 1440 AM from 5 to 8 p.m. daily. I'm not a fan of Ramsey offering a slew of products to help with debt and investing, but many of the tools on the website are free, as is the information given during the show. Recently, he asked millionaires to call in to explain how they did it without inheritances, high six-figure salaries or a gambling jackpot.
Even though I respect Ramsey in spirit, I wish he didn't offer so many ways to line his own pockets. As an alternative, consider the advice of authors Harold Pollack and Helaine Olen. They believe that investing doesn't have to be adviser-centric, so they put their best advice on an index card:
• Max out your 401(k) or equivalent employee contribution.
• Buy inexpensive well-diversified mutual funds.
• Never buy or sell individual securities.
• Save 20 percent of your money.
• Pay your credit card balance in full every month.
• Pay attention to fees.
• Avoid actively managed funds.
• Make financial advisers commit to fiduciary standards.
For more, read their book "The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn't Have to Be Complicated." Another excellent book for simplified investing is "Saving for Retirement Without Living Like a Pauper or Winning the Lottery," by Gail MarksJarvis, who also writes for the Chicago and St. Paul newspapers.
Don't make credit cards your retirement plan.