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Everyone’s an Expert

Richard Quinn

DOES ANYONE DOUBT that planning for retirement is unique for each individual?

The way we manage money, how we handle debt, our desired lifestyle and our family status are all important variables to consider. From what I observe, however, many people ignore these differences and seek a one-size-fits-all answer.

I’m addicted to YouTube. In addition to history, archeology and general education videos, I watch many retirement planning shows. I also follow retirement groups on Facebook and bloggers who embrace the FIRE (financial independence-retire early) lifestyle.

I never knew there were so many experts out there. My favorites are those who give advice after disclosing they aren’t expert advisors. A question for those who listen to these folks: What makes you think someone else can tell you—in a video or blog post—whether you can retire?

One of my YouTube favorites is a retired financial advisor. He takes questions and then proceeds to construct answers using an Excel spreadsheet. He plugs in his own assumptions, including spending rates based on national averages.

A lot of videos focus on $1 million as the magic number for retirement savings. Several spend time criticizing the 4% withdrawal rate. Others claim to tell you whether you can retire and when. These experts press forward with advice without asking the person’s annual expenses or desired lifestyle.

“I have saved $750,000, can I retire?”

Who knows? Tell us about your debts, expenses, emergency fund and how you want to live. But no matter. The experts will just use national averages instead.

“I have $1 million. I’m 60. Can I retire spending $100,000 for the first 10 years, then $75,000 thereafter?”

That’s a 10% withdrawal rate. Yeah, no doubt that’ll work fine.

Here’s another good question from a video: “How much does the average person need in retirement funds to retire comfortably?”

Well, if that average person had a nest egg of $1 million, they could generate an average $40,000. So, I guess the answer is $1 million—on average, that is. Oh yeah, define “comfortably.”

Online experts will find ways to figure out how long that $1 million will last in retirement—with no details about your situation required. Okay, how about one detail: Where do you live? Here are your chances by city.

Sometimes, the questioner provides more details. “We live in Maine. This is a pretty expensive state to live in. For those of you who also live in Maine or another similarly expensive state, I wonder, what would you consider a reasonable monthly budget for two?”

To that I might say, “What’s your monthly budget today?”

All it takes to make any retirement plan work online is a willingness to manipulate the assumptions. If you assume high investment returns, plus low inflation for the next 30 years, then all will be well—and that’s an assumption, too.

“My husband is 55 and I’m 50. He would like to retire at age 60. We’ve saved $150,000 for retirement. Can we make that work?”

Nooooo problem. No Social Security for at least the first two years of retirement, no Medicare for five. Your current savings should give you about $6,000 a year to live on. But the good news is, with your low income, you can probably buy health insurance through an Affordable Care Act exchange for $1.15 a month.

Yeah, Im being a bit snarky, but that’s a real question from a YouTube video. As I recall, the YouTube advice to this questioner was to start saving 70% of income. Or was it to get real and plan on working until age 70?

FIRE bloggers will post about their growing net worth, frugal spending and relaxed lifestyle. In reply, they’ll get touchy-feely comments praising their success and lifestyle.

Recently, a blogger told of the frugal travel habits of some young retirees living on $40,000 a year. This family of five took three or four trips a year using discount coupons, Airbnb lodging and rewards points. Their next trip is to Europe in 2022. They’ve used 300,000 frequent-flier miles to book the flights. I asked how they accumulated 300,000 miles, given their frugal lifestyle. The comment was deleted without being answered.

I’m thinking that many people who ask the type of questions I’ve mentioned are scared—or quite unsure—about where they’re headed.

Living in retirement isn’t about averages. It isn’t about what other people do or the opinions of experts, especially online instant experts who don’t know anything about you and have yet to experience many years of retirement themselves. Most people could use some one-on-one guidance from a real expert—along with a reality check on their retirement expectations. Let’s face it: 25 to 30 years is a long time to live on someone else’s assumptions.

Richard Quinn blogs at QuinnsCommentary.net. Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. Follow him on Twitter @QuinnsComments and check out his earlier articles.

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